We have all heard the saying, “It hurt too much to cry.” What you don’t hear as often is the idea that there could exist a pain so great that to talk about it seems unbearable. It is the feeling that the act of verbalizing an experience would cause such hopelessness and shame it would be impossible to endure it.
That begs the question: Isn’t therapy based on talking? If talking is too painful and therapy is about talking, what do you when you have this type of pain inside?
The answer starts with understanding the role a therapist can play in your emotional life. In a previous article, I talked about a child’s need to have a witness to their lives as they develop. In good-enough parenting, the witness helps the child know who they are and to develop a positive self image. One of the parents role is to witness the child so that they can develop a positive since of self.
As we mature, we internalize the voice of that witness. Unfortunately, in cases of inadequate parenting, the witness develops into the Harsh Inner Critic. It is critical and labels the person as “bad”. It only causes pain.
Your therapist becomes the healing, affirming and caring witness. S/he shows you a different way to see yourself. Rather than criticism and condemnation, the therapist validates and encourages you to be your true-self.
You might wonder how that could happen when you cannot verbalize what is hurting you and making you feel so ashamed. Communication happens in many ways in therapy. By not talking, you are telling your therapist that you are in pain. Rather than criticize you for not speaking, the therapist will care about you and the pain you are expressing. The therapist then becomes your “good witness,” seeing the distress in nonverbal behavior.
Silence is Communication
Silence in a therapy session can come in many forms. I would like to look at what we can learn from three examples.
Once I knew a woman who did not speak about her pain for the first year in therapy. She could talk about the facts of her life, but as soon as she tried to say more, she would become mute. As she experienced her therapist’s quiet acceptance and encouragement, she felt safe enough to cry but still did not speak of her pain.
This woman grew up in a very strict and abusive home, where no emotions were allowed. As an adult, she married an abusive man. If she showed any vulnerability, he would belittle her.
Slowly, my friend was able to face the pain, open up, and tell her story. When I met her, she was living a happy life with friends, social activities and a fulfilling career. She talked freely about herself and her ideas.
Talking To Keep Silent
Another way to “not talk” in therapy is to talk about other issues. For example, a woman with whom I worked began therapy talking about her grief. The year before that, she had experienced the loss of several family members due to serious illness and death. She was happy in her marriage, but the hardship caused by the losses was putting a strain on the marriage and distance was growing between them.
What she did not tell me was that she was using alcohol to manage her feelings and could not stop drinking. After six months, she told me that the real reason she came to therapy was to deal with her drinking.
She had been drinking heavily for years but did not consider it a problem. In college, everyone drank. In her current life, everyone drank. What she was realizing was that she drank more than anyone else, and more often. For months, she was silent about her deepest shame and pain.
Silence In The Middle Of The Story
My last example is a man who was in therapy to manage the stress in his work life. We made a lot of process managing his stress. Then, he began to have nightmares and unexpected feelings of depression and anxiety. He quit talking.
He would begin a sentence and not be able to complete it. He would start telling me about a dream, stop in the middle of the story, and be unable to finish. The feelings of fear, pain and shame would overwhelm him. His internal critical voices would tell him he was wrong and making up stories.
Overwhelmed and Ashamed
Each of these people have something in common: experiences in their lives were causing them great pain. Each of them felt so overwhelmed and ashamed that they believed that there was no hope for help, and that the shame would kill them. Even so, they showed up.
They were desperate, and they were willing to show up even though they could not talk about what was hurting them.
Not Right or Wrong
Therapy is not something that has to be done the “right” way; it is something that should be done your way. It is a place to find safety and understanding when you think it may not exist for you.
If you are desperate, in pain and cannot tell anyone, contact me by phone or email. We can arrange to meet in person, or even through Skype if that’s more convenient. There is a place for you here, and you don’t have to say a word. (919)881-2001