Have you ever had one of those magic moments in therapy? I’m talking about those times when a therapist’s observation hits you like the time my Uncle Dean knocked me over with a sack of Idaho potatoes! After these moments, life is never quite the same. You have a new way of seeing the world that, in some remarkable way, changes things.
I have been blessed/lucky to have several of these moments in my life. My very favorite one was when my therapist, Bonnie, stepped out of her usual role and shouted “Lighten up!!!!” I was shocked! She had interrupted my pattern of depressing thinking about a relationship I was about to leave. She suddenly and forcefully got my attention, after which something was never quite the same. By the way, shortly after that, I married the man who was the subject of that session.
Another amazing change moment happened when I was in a couple counseling training with my mentor. Terry Real had a subtle way of weaving therapeutic impact into what otherwise might have been a bit pedantic. He was introducing his Relationship Grid to the group, and teaching his concept of self esteem.
He asked for a volunteer. I usually sat on my hands at these moments. But, for some obscure reason, I volunteered to do a mini piece of therapy with Terry in front of the class.
He explained that there are two different behavioral tendencies when a person loses self esteem: collapse into a toxic shame-filled “one-down” position, or burst into grandiosity, a narcissistically charged “one-up” position. These two extremes effect both the internal (inside of the self) and the external, or interpersonal environment. Sinking into one-down, toxic shame and exploding into grandiose one-upping both cripple our ability to show up in relationship.
So, here I was in front of the class. Terry was asking some innocuous questions about my marriage. Internally, I was getting activated. My thoughts went from mild irritation to sarcasm to rage. It was something like this: “Come on Terry, I've had twenty years of therapy and this is not touching me. I know how to manage my emotions and my relationships. I've done my work already. Please, Terry, tell me something I don't know….”
Then I remember Terry asking me: “If your husband was here, what would he have to say about this?”
Well, that made me mad! My thoughts trailed off: Leave my husband the hell out of this. My husband and I are fine, thank you. Now you've crossed a line. How can I get back to my seat without revealing any more? How can I get out of this? I'm here with all of my colleagues, and this is not right. I desperately tried to hide my self-righteous indignation and save face. I just wanted to get out of there.
I was answering Terry’s questions but clearly not playing. Like your average 13-year-old, I suppose. Then, inside, something broke. Internally, my thoughts mowed me down. I collapsed into toxic shame: They can all see that I am a horrible therapist and my life is a mess. My husband doesn't love me, nobody could…. blah, blah. Still I fought to mask this slide into crippling vulnerability. Can't I just go away? Get me back to my seat so I can hide….
Back to Terry and the class. He gently said “What’s going on, Bonnie? What just happened?” Then he shut his mouth. He gave me time. I slowly raised my slumped body. I breathed in my new understanding. I looked him straight in the eye. We were there: two human beings, neither better than, nor less than. We are both just same-as and human. We are connected for this moment in time.
So my ego maniac with an inferiority complex issue got messed up that day. It was a new beginning for me. Something about this experience taught me to show up differently in all of my relationships. This is Self-Esteem Practice. This is how I cure my narcissism moment-to-moment, a day at a time.
We would love to hear about moments that changed you. Share with us in the comments section and don’t forget to share this with someone you think it might help.