Do not touch!: therapeutic holding and containment…or lack of it!

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So, the ‘holding in therapy’ conversation sort of came up on Monday. It was only a matter of time before it made it into the room wasn’t it?

Spoiler alert!: hugs aren’t going to happen in my therapy.

Part of me is like, ‘meh, this is old news! I already knew this, even if we hadn’t actually discussed it’ and another part, actually, several of the little parts of me are so devastated that they think they may die of grief.

Sounds melodramatic doesn’t it? – but it’s how it is. I’m not going to dress it up or downplay how this feels because I just need to let it out in whatever form it comes….which is probably going to be messy just like my mind.

I’ve now had a chance to sleep on all that happened in Monday’s therapy session twice, and to be honest my brain is still all over the place about it.

I wanted to post something yesterday but found I couldn’t write. As I so often say in therapy, ‘I don’t really know what to say’… but there’s also something about not knowing how to formulate my thoughts clearly on the page when I am still trying to work it out.

I’m hoping that today, writing will help process it all a bit.

Anyway, I’ll start at the beginning and work my way up to the end…

Before I even arrived I knew that my session was going to be difficult (again). I have totally come out of the breezy, rational, coping, adult state I have been in for the last couple of weeks and have landed back in ‘shit has hit the fan, child parts running loose’ state. I guess the emotional bit of me is back in the driver’s seat and the rational bit has done a runner. It’s quite scary really because the current drivers are way too young to hold a licence yet and so it really feels like a bumpy ride right now.

As soon as I sat down in the room I was super aware of my body. It felt like a strong electric current was passing through it. I felt shaky and buzzing. It was horrendous. It’s so unnerving walking into such a calm, quiet space only to be fully confronted with my body’s reality: it was neither calm nor quiet.

I am always really aware of the physical sensations of my body when I am in the therapy room. I guess part of it is because, for so long, my therapist has directed my attention towards how my body is feeling in session. I wish I could say, ‘it’s fine, calm, and settled’ rather than the usual, ‘anxious, buzzing, and jumpy’ response.

There were a few problems with the session for me from the outset. Firstly, I had decided that having not really ‘talked’ for a few weeks about anything that was really bugging me, I’d take in my laptop to go through the last blog post I wrote. There was plenty of content to work through and I needed to get some stuff off my chest – or try to, at least.

I didn’t end up taking the blog post into session. Something had happened with my computer in the car and it meant I couldn’t access my blog offline. I wasn’t too phased, I thought it’d be a good opportunity to try and talk and bring that content into session. I could tell her what I was worrying about rather than showing it to her on a screen.

Obviously this sounds straightforward. It should be, shouldn’t it? Talk about the fear of her being gone and how terrifying it all is? Speak about feeling uncontained and being unable to be there fully with her. It would be easy to discuss those things had my brain not emptied the moment I sat down rendering me mute. It happens all the time. Whenever I need to speak about the therapeutic relationship I lose myself and my words go….I dissociate.

This partly why I resorted to taking my writing into sessions around this time last year. I would sit not really talking and feel incredibly frustrated when I knew how much I had to say and how affected by what was happening in therapy I was. I know how ridiculous it sounds, but honestly, my mind loses its ability to speak, the words go. I get caught up in all the feelings I have but I cannot talk about them and vacate the space. It’s kind of a bummer!

My therapist has recognised that part of the problem is that it is my emotional brain that is most dominant when I am like this and not my rational one (where the words reside). She often makes reference to what’s gone on with me as a ‘very early injury’ and so those young parts actually don’t necessarily have the vocabulary to talk it through in the way I would want. When she acknowledges these vulnerable parts of me I seem to disappear. It’s too much. I can’t stay.

For that part of me, being seen is incredibly uncomfortable. It feels so exposed and scared that I just can’t stay with it and with my therapist. And yet, at the same time, those young parts want more than anything to be seen, held, and contained because they never have been before. I didn’t get enough physical or emotional containment as a child but I know I need/ed it. I know that’s where this fucking huge hole in me has come from. It’s agonising, really. I desperately want to feel safe and secure and yet, at the same time, allowing someone close enough to me to be able to feel contained TERRIFIES ME.

She commented on the fact that I have told her, in the past, that she sometimes reminds me of my mum. I agreed but said that it didn’t feel positive and that actually sometimes I feel frightened of her. I loved (note the deliberate past tense) my mum more than anything but she scared me as a child. She was so volatile that I never had a clue when things might kick off. I was always desperate for her care, love and attention and yet so often things would erupt at home that I could never feel relaxed of safe with her.

This is what happens in therapy: I long for closeness and yet am always on guard waiting for something negative to happen because part of me feels it is inevitable. In therapy I fear my therapist’s judgement, mockery, rejection, and abandonment even though she’s never given me real cause to think she would be anything other than kind and empathic.

It is so difficult to have such conflicting feelings. Part of me wants to run to my therapist and part of me wants to run far far away from her. We spoke about how I struggled to trust that I was safe with her, and how it was alien for me to feel and trust in the fact that someone might care or want to know what’s going on for me. She said something about the nervous system and how the brain is wired and that it’s difficult because the body is involved not just the brain. It’s hard to calm my system down.

She spoke about how I have been with my kids and how I try and hold and contain them in order for them to feel secure but that repeatedly hitting the contrast between how I am as a parent vs what I received growing up is incredibly painful and it’s something we are aware of.

And then it happened, the holding and boundaries talk came out of nowhere (well that’s how it felt!). It went something like this:

‘If we can understand it and know that that bit needs to feel contained and held here…and I know that, here, it’s not about physical holding. I know that you are clear about the boundaries, but it has come up in your dreams. You want to be held. It’s understandable because it’s what you needed and it wasn’t around enough back then. It’s ok to feel like that in therapy. You know I have this boundary and won’t cross it, but it’s still the idea about needing to feel a bit safer in this space, emotionally safe. It is important. It’s not the same as physical holding but it’s what we can do here bit by bit and that might feel quite frightening because it’s so alien’

I was a silent for quite some time after that.

As she was speaking I could feel the little parts of me crumble on the floor. It was a sucker punch. I froze and went somewhere else. I ended up where I always go, a huge dark grey space where there is absolutely nothing at all and I am totally alone. Only it’s not me, the 34 year old adult, standing there in the emptiness, it’s a tiny two year old little girl standing there in her nightdress holding a well-loved soft toy rabbit by its ear wondering why she is alone and there is no one there to pick her up and make her feel safe.

My therapist asked me what was going on for me, but it was close to the end of the session and I knew I couldn’t say everything that had just been triggered in me. How could I articulate any of what I felt? Her bringing up ‘the boundary that will not be crossed’ (touch) has made me certain of all the things I have always felt about myself. Having shown her the real me it is clear that there is something wrong: I am unlovable, untouchable, and repellent.

My mum couldn’t bear to touch me or hold me and it’s the same with this ‘therapy mother’. I guess I sort of hoped that it was my mum’s problem and her inability to connect with me but having this conversation on Monday makes it feel like it’s me. I must do something that puts people off. My Inner Critic is having a field day:

Why don’t you ever listen to me? I’ve told you time and again that you are a loser. No one loves you. It is you. It’s not your mother that’s the issue. How could she ever have loved you? Just look at you! Pathetic. No one wants to be around neediness. It’s so boring. You are boring and disgusting. Why are you so shocked that your therapist can’t bear to be near you? Why on earth would she want to be? If your own mother can’t even tolerate you then why would she? Your mum was stuck with you through biology, your therapist is blessed that she has no bond to tie you to her. Give it up. I’ll promise I will look after you, as I always have, but stop reaching out for something that you will never get. You are not worthy of love and care. You are nothing.’

Rationally I know that what I have just said there is crazy but that’s what is going on in my head. It’s that voice that encourages me to self-harm or not eat. I’ve run miles every day since Monday (both literally and symbolically) and yet I can’t run away from this no matter how I try. My body aches from distance covered on pretty much zero fuel and yet my brain is no further from how it was on Monday.

I know that I’ve ignored my inner child and the pain it carries for years and years and so perhaps I need to lean into how this feels rather than run away from it? My therapy is really all about trying to deal with my childhood. It’s about trying to give space to how my inner child feels.

How does she feel?

She is devastated beyond words. She is caught up in raw, all encompassing, pain. She literally just wants to curl up and die. She feels hopeless and abandoned: all familiar feelings that I have desperately tried to avoid feeling in the therapeutic relationship. But, of course, this is where we are….it was only a matter of time wasn’t it?

The other day I commented on another blogger’s post about mother issues and said something about how I was able to accept, most of the time, that my mum would never be the mother I needed because she is not that person, but sometimes I put myself out there, hoping for her to be that holding, nurturing person I needed as a child and when she doesn’t fulfil that need (because actually she never has been able to) I am devastated. I think this is what’s playing out in therapy right now.

My adult knows that my therapist is just a therapist, is grateful for her as a therapist, and can handle the constraints and boundaries of the relationship. BUT, and it is a huge BUT, there is the little girl part of me that still holds out hope of there being a chance of mending what is broken inside me. Maybe there is one last chance to fill the hole that was forged so long ago?

The little girl in me desperately needs to be loved and held and contained and is attached to my therapist. Right now the grief I feel is not about my mum, it’s about her. I had transferred that ‘hope’ onto her which has made how I feel about my mum more manageable…but now it’s all caught up with me again and I am grieving two attachment figures at once.

The little girl doesn’t understand that the window for meeting these young needs has gone because she is still alive in me, frozen in time, trapped in this grown up body. She longs to be held both physically and emotionally by the new attachment figure. But as I said in my comment the other day in relation to my mother it takes a long time for hope (of love and holding) to die. But I think I am one step closer to that after Monday. There is no hope now – either from my biological mother or the therapy mother.

I walked out of therapy and immediately wanted to self-harm. The urge was so strong. I was lucky that there is a 45 minute drive home because had I not had that time to decompress I would be a right mess now. I didn’t self-harm but the thoughts are not far away – if I am honest those thoughts are front and centre. It is really all about trying to hang onto myself right now and not go spiralling off any deeper into that attachment pain. It’s not easy.

When all this happened I talked it all through with a friend and she, as usual, had plenty of helpful grounding comments for me. At least part of me understands that this boundary is my therapist’s and for whatever reason it’s something she sticks to. It could be her training and the type of therapy she does that makes touch a no-go area or it could be about her own issues and comfort around physical touch.

I have got to try and hang onto the fact that this is not a reflection on me and that my needs and wanting to be physically held by her aren’t the problem. It’s not like it’s one rule for me and a different one for everyone else (at least I bloody hope that’s the case!). I won’t lie though. This has really hurt me in the place that I try to keep protected.

I know that physical touch is helpful to lots of people in their therapy and so it’s hard knowing that that cannot, and will not ever, be part of my therapy. What I do know about this, though, is that emotional holding is vital in therapy. You can have all the physical holding you want in session but if you aren’t also emotionally held then you don’t cope well outside the room. Hugs are great but only in addition to emotional holding.

Ah, there’s the problem, though…because I don’t feel emotionally held either. FFS!!!! Or rather, I can’t hold onto the sense of feeling emotionally held and contained if I am not in the room with my therapist. It all falls apart and disintegrates when I leave.

I know that the goal is that I should reach a point where I can hold and contain my own emotions but that seems like a long way off right now. I keep trying, though. I had a go at the visualisation things a few times – they categorically do not work for me; I’ve listened to music to try and help feel grounded; hell, I’ve even picked those fucking pebbles from the beach to try and have a transitional type object….and yet none of this is doing anything for me right now because the emotional holding needs to come from the therapeutic relationship and not from brain training! My brain will rewire itself once it has experienced being contained.

It’s really hard because I don’t really know how to move things forward with that. Right now I can barely look at my therapist in sessions and feel like she is a million miles away. Who knew that a couple of metres could feel so huge? I feel so removed and distant from her. I guess that’s maybe why I have been so caught up in seeking physical holding. I don’t know.

I’ve sort of run out of steam here with this and I have to leave for my friend’s funeral now. I know, I could write more and post at a later date but for now, that’s all I have in me. I guess I need to come to terms with lots of loss today.

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Author: rubberbandsandchewinggum

Mid-thirties. Mum of two. Procrastinator. Therapy and mental health blogger.

14 thoughts on “Do not touch!: therapeutic holding and containment…or lack of it!”

  1. This is going to sound strange, but I am so grateful you shared this today. I’m feeling massively lost and alone, suffering with a load of very similar feelings. What you’ve written here resonated so much with me that I was in tears reading it. I really hear you, I hear that need for safety, protection and secure attachment and the agony in knowing it will never be met. That pain is huge and unbearable. I am sending love and hugs – too all the parts of you, who all deserve it x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Laura. How funny that I commented today that your post felt like you were inside my head and then this has resonated with you. I still have plenty to say on the matter but just feel so drained right now with it all. I feel so alone with it (as in, feel alone in the therapy room). Thanks for your kind words, all very much appreciated x

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just want you to know how much I empathise. I have those horrible silent sessions and I dissociate and I desperately want to feel close to J but am far too terrified to let it happen. It’s all horrible and hard, but I get it. I really do. Try to be gentle with yourself x

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Those sessions are just agony aren’t they? It’s so painful, part of you is screaming out to be seen and contained and another is so terrified of it that it backs away into silence. It’s shit! It’s also then awful in the week because you get so frustrated with yourself as the moment you walk out the door those young parts meltdown as they walk away from the change to be held and are left stranded until the next session…..which you hope will be good and then the invariably the cycle repeats. I have no idea how I am going to be on Monday. I feel like I need to protect myself and yet that isn’t going to help with feeling contained. Argh. Therapy is fun isn’t it?!
        x

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m sorry it was such a rough one! I’m glad you were able to process it here, as difficult as it may be for you.

    I totally understand the torn feeling between “I need you to see me! I need to be heard!” and “Wait…but don’t look that close, don’t see or hear me too well…it’s scary!” You know this about me, because you’ve been reading my posts, so know that you are so not alone there. There’s a huge risk in being so vulnerable, because it may end with you feeling emotionally validated in safe, or it may end with you not getting what you need. And even if it ends well, you have to leave that safe space eventually and sit with the feelings that the vulnerability triggered (which SUCKS, doesn’t it?).

    The boundary part of it sucks too. My therapist has ever given me two very brief hugs following a session. Both times I asked for it, once following a rupture and once when I’d had a terrible day. I was seriously amazed when she said yes the first time because she is strict with boundaries too, so I know that I really can’t and should not ask almost ever. I’m not supposed to rely on it (so fucking hard!). And I almost wish she hadn’t ever done it, because it’s like getting a taste of something and never being allowed to experience it again. It’s so crazy how something so simple as touch can be such a trigger for us.

    Also, I don’t know if this will be helpful, but know this: those hugs have not been the solution to anything. It was 5 seconds of a good feeling, but it vanished the second she let go and was out of sight. I’ve gotten so much more from being brutally honest with her, sharing the raw fears and feelings, and having her be emotionally responsive, empathetic, and supportive. That emotional connection we make in session sticks me much longer than a hug. I know that’s not the same for everyone, but I would hope that maybe the little girl can find a way to get what she needs without a hug. Maybe she can feel safe and loved emotionally. But it might mean really being honest and finding ways to articulate some of the stuff you are holding back on. That might erase some of the distance.

    Of course, I don’t know for sure! Either way, sending virtual hugs your way!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your lovely, understanding comment. And thank you for reiterating what others have said about touch – i.e it is not the be all and end all of therapy and that emotional holding is the real glue that holds the pieces together. I’m working hard at trying to believe that! ha! I don’t really know how to get the emotional holding I need either and I think that is largely why I have become so fixated on touch, it’s almost like I don’t feel emotionally connected in session and so I guess my brain thinks ‘well if I can get physical proof of holding than maybe she does care’. Right now I feel like I’m in a desert so far as holding and containment go!

      I know what’s come up this week needed to happen, it’s been needing to happen for a long time. There’s been several elephants being ignored in the room and, in some ways, I am glad she brought it up….but of course there’s part of me that would like to have lived in the bubble of ‘maybe one day it’ll happen’.

      Anyway, I hope that things are going better your end. Take care.

      Like

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