I have been going to therapy since my mom died.
It’s a small thing, really; I’ve only been to two sessions so far, and the free counseling benefit that I qualify for through work only lasts for five sessions total. It’s unclear to me at this point if I’ll want to continue once the free sessions are up, simply because it is an expense and I don’t experience any sort of periodic malaise that might be better managed with assistance from a healthcare professional. Until then, I’m enjoying the feeling of emotional clarity that’s come from my first couple of sessions. I’ve learned some stuff about my own motivations and behavior that I’m trying to work out.
One of the tools my therapist shared with me is a framework for exploring why we act the way that we do. The premise of the framework is that there are things we experience that are objective facts, and paired with those facts are our own feelings that we can’t change. A feeling is a physiological response to a stimulus, so it’s best to be honest with yourself about what feelings you’re experiencing in a given situation. In reaction to the facts and the feelings are what we call stories. Stories are the scripts that play in your head as an explanation of what you’re observing paired with the feelings those observations evoke in you.
I think I’ve written a few times here before that I occasionally feel bouts of intense loneliness which I typically attribute to my feeling like I lack independent socialization skills (a lack that I associate strongly with the general problems of toxic masculinity that inhibit healthy development of social skills in the first place); it’s hard for me to connect with people. What’s become a little clearer to me is that a lot of that difficulty with connection stems from my own fears about personal rejection. Over the years I’ve developed behavioral patterns and internal stories that were designed to protect me from that sense of rejection, and much of the isolation I’m feeling at this point in my life appears to be the byproduct of relying on those old patterns for protection without developing more prosocial habits. A common story I tell myself in social situations is that it’s unlikely anyone will care about what I have to say or what I’m interested in, and so it’s better to remain quiet around people so as not to bore them. This story is pretty powerful, often overriding recognition of other important factors like the reality that I typically interact with people in spaces where I’ve been invited or that they’ve already agreed to engage socially.
One thing about all this that I haven’t really considered before this point is how my withdrawal can impact others. While I’ve felt for a while that my relationship with my mom was as good as it could have gotten under the circumstances, I’m only now really confronting how my own behaviors closed off the relationship in ways that weren’t necessary. That my defensive behavior resulted in hurting someone else, even indirectly, is a sobering realization. At least in my own mind, the withdrawal behavior serves as a way to avoid creating an unwanted burden on other people, but I’ve overlooked how it pushes away people who already are close and want to be closer to me. That’s a messy thing to recognize in yourself.
In this moment, I’m still figuring out what to do about all of these things. I suspect the first step, following realization, is to practice changing my internal stories. That takes a lot of effort; I did it in retrospect with my therapist’s help once, and it was hard to reframe an experience in a way that didn’t automatically assume that I was a potential trespasser. It takes time to build new stories about ourselves, and it would be dishonest to say that I didn’t have some apprehension about my own follow through. We cling to what’s familiar because it’s comfortable and it’s easy. Seeing the fear for what it is doesn’t make it go away; it only makes confronting the fear feel doable, which is a huge thing but not everything.