I got a text Friday morning around 10am. I checked my phone briefly between sessions and saw a text message from NC. My next client had already arrived, and I didn’t have time to read the message, but I knew what was coming. First sessions are easy, in a sense. There is a lot of chit-chat, getting to know each other, small talk. Second sessions are tough. A blank canvas for clients to begin their work; it’s intimidating for them. To be honest, it’s intimidating for me too. Second sessions always have me feeling a little lost, like I need to be doing more, offering more, being more for my clients. Clients often want direction, guidance, and I often feel ill-equipped to provide it to them.
People often don’t come back after a first session for a few reasons that I can identify. Sometimes, people have gotten what they needed, vented their frustrations, feelings, trauma, vomited all of their life struggles out on my couch and walked away, needing nothing more. This explanation makes me feel better about myself. I was so amazing that they just didn’t need to come back for more. Fixed in one session!! This does happen, but it’s probably rarer than I would like to think. Secondly, people are afraid. They realize they may have revealed too much, or come to realize that the process will ask them to reveal too much, and they decide it’s too much to handle. Inevitably, I wonder if I pushed too hard, too fast, and scared them off.
When I finally got a chance to look through my messages during my lunch hour, I was surprised to see that Nick hadn’t canceled the appointment.
“Hey, sorry to do this, I’m stuck in a meeting that will probably run late. Could we meet any later than 3 today? So sorry”. Still, I wondered. Was this just delaying the inevitable of him not coming?
I replied, “I have a session at 4 but we could meet at 5 if that works for you”. I cringed a little as I hit “send”. I tried not to work past 5:00 (especially on Fridays) and I tried not to bend the boundaries I had set on my time for clients. I wondered to myself, would I have accommodated any other client like this?
Having set a later time for our appointment, I spent the rest of my lunch hour reflecting on our last session. It went well, I thought. He seemed open to the process, but I wondered about the limits of that openness. Second sessions were the test, to see what would really happen, if he would really engage. I was surprised when my client left at 4:50 and Nick was already in my waiting room. It caught me a little off guard, his being early, I felt like I hadn’t had enough time to prepare myself. Smiling, trying to pull it together, I said “hey, give me just a couple minutes to finish some things up and then we can get started?”
“No worries, I’m early”, he said, and went back to playing some sort of game on his phone. Back in my office, I took a few deep breaths and a drink of water. I fluffed the pillows on my couch and straightened a few books on the shelf to kill a little more time. 4:53. Time to go.
“Hey, you ready?” I said, trying not to startle him as I approached him from behind in the waiting room.
“yeah, just give me one second to finish this level”. I stood awkwardly as he continued on his phone for what seemed like an eternity. “okay, sorry. Just didn’t want to lose my place. I’m ready”.
We entered my office and he took his same spot on the leather couch. I followed and sat across from him.
“So….” he drew out his words and took a breath “what am I supposed to start with?”
I tried not to look flustered even though I hated when clients asked this, as if I knew exactly what they should talk about in order to make things better or different.
“Well, that’s up to you. We can talk about anything that seems important to you, whether it’s something going on currently, something from the past, or really anything that you think would be helpful”.
He shifted uncomfortably on the couch, crossing his arms. “I don’t really know. That’s pretty vague”
This was going nowhere in a hurry. I realized I was going to have to give him some kind of direction if we were going to actually talk today. “You’re right, it is. It seems like it is a little overwhelming to try and think of things to talk about. Maybe I could give some suggestions for narrowing it down?”
He nodded as he met my eyes “sure, that would be good”.
“well, when you first came in, you mentioned stress at home, particularly with your son. Is that something you would like to talk about?” I figured stress was an easy place to start. Nothing to deep, nothing too intimidating.
He exhaled and leaned forward, clasping his hands together and resting his elbows on his knees “Yeah, I guess.”
“Okay. Maybe you could tell me what has been most stressful at home?”
“Okay. Yeah. Well, I mentioned that I have a son?” I nodded. “Odin. He’s two. And he’s the best thing that’s probably ever happened to me. I really love him. I do. Sometimes he stresses me out though. Just being two, you know? I know it’s all normal stuff, and kids are frustrating sometimes, and he’s just really great, but sometimes it’s a lot. You know, cartoons and the park and diaper duty and tantrums. I mean, I love spending time with him, it’s great, but yeah”.
“It sounds like you really love and care about your son” I affirmed. He nodded in agreement. “And it also sounds like he can be frustrating to you at times”. He seemed a bit reticent to agree with that statement. I also noticed he hadn’t really answered my question.
“I wonder if it’s hard to admit, despite how much you love him, that sometimes you feel frustrated or angry with him”, I posed.
He sat quietly for a minute. “yeah”, he said in a quiet voice. “it feels like I should love every minute with him, and I do, but some of them are really hard. sometimes I do get frustrated”.
“Being frustrated as a parent is a pretty typical thing to feel. All parents get frustrated, not just you”. I attempted to normalize his experience. “What frustrates you the most?”
“Um…I guess just the normal stuff you know? Not picking up his toys or crying when he doesn’t get his way. Sometimes I just want him to grow up, you know?”
“I’m not sure I do. Tell me a little bit more about how you want him to grow up?”
He sighed as he searched for words. “it’s like, sometimes I just wish he could understand what I want him to do, or why I am doing things. It’s frustrating when he is upset and I can’t figure out how to make him understand. Sometimes I just wish he could grow up and get over it.”
“Get over it”, I repeated, quizzically.
“Yeah. I feel like sometimes I just want him to stop crying and get over it. Like, the world is tough, he will have to get used to it. I don’t want him to be too soft, you know??
“You want him to have a tough skin and you worry that maybe he is too sensitive or vulnerable” I reflected.
“Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I always felt like I knew how to pull it together, and I had it way worse than he does” he replied, without elaborating.
“What do you mean by that?” I questioned.
He sat back on the couch and took a breath. “I just mean, he has a good home, loving parents, everything he could ask for.”
I took a risk and said, “things that perhaps you didn’t have”.
He met my gaze and I watched his expression harden. “Of course I had those things, I mean, it was just different. I just wish he could understand how good he has it and appreciate it”.
“Hmm.” I stalled for a minute to gather my thoughts. “You know that your son has had a lot given to him in life, and it frustrates you that he can’t see or understand that.”
“yeah, I guess.” He seemed to soften a bit when we shifted to talking about his son rather than his own family growing up. “I mean, he gets so upset over little things, like if he can’t find the toy he wants. He has so many toys, but he will cry if I don’t give him the exact right toy. Like, you have so many toys, just pick another one. Don’t cry about it.” He seemed exasperated that his two year old acted, well, like a two year old.
“I wonder where that idea came from”, I pondered aloud.
“The idea that it’s not okay to cry about things, that you should just get over them”
He thought for a minute and then seemed to dismiss his own thoughts “I don’t know. I mean, it’s just the message that everyone gets, you know? Like you have to grow up and get over it. You can’t be a kid forever”.
“I’m not sure that is a message that everyone gets”, I offered uncertainly.
“Yeah, well maybe they should” he said, defensively. I could feel that I had struck some sort of nerve.
“You think it would be better if people adopted that mentality” I offered, trying to understand.
“Yeah. I think it would make people stronger, not so weak”
“What would that mean about them, if they were weak?”, I replied, unsure if this them he referred to was his son, himself, or anyone in particular.
“That they could get hurt, I guess. That they could be taken advantage of.” He shrugged.
Something clicked for me. “I wonder if you have felt that way from people in your life.’
“Yeah, probably. I mean, in the business I’m in, everyone wants something from you. So yeah, you can’t show weakness or they will use it against you”. Again with the mysterious they.
“That makes sense to me. What about your family?” I pried a little deeper.
“What about my family?”, he questioned, accusingly.
“Well, it occurred to me that maybe that message, the one about needing to grow up, not be weak, and get over things came from your family. If you weren’t allowed to be a child yourself, to experience the vulnerability of being a little kid, being upset, being comforted, and if maybe that makes you jealous or angry”. I threw it out there, not knowing what his reaction would be
“Jealous of who? Of Odin?” He looked at me and I saw his eyes shift from confusion to anger.
“Yes”. I had already said it, and I doubled down. “Jealous that he has received the childhood you were never allowed to have, and he isn’t even aware of it, he isn’t grateful for it. I wonder if that makes you angry”.
“I am not jealous of my son. I am not angry at my son.” He looked at me angrily and deflected “Although you are kind of pissing me off right now”
“I can understand that and it’s okay for you to be angry with me”. I assured him in a calm voice, though I was shaking inside.
He looked at the clock. 5:34. “Can I go now? I don’t think I’m getting anything out of this.”
I sat back in my chair, defeated. “You are always free to go, I’m not holding you here. We do still have some time left if you want, but I won’t force you to stay”
“Yeah, I’m gonna go.” He picked up his coat and walked past me before I even had a chance to get out of my chair. I heard him mutter “pointless” just before the door to my office slammed behind me. I sunk into my chair, kicked off my uncomfortable high heels, and rested my feet on the coffee table, equal parts confused, upset, and defeated. I wasn’t sure exactly sure where things went wrong, but they certainly had. Exasperated, I let out a sigh and said, to no one in particular “I gave up my Friday night for this??”