Lili Bernstein (Goralnick), LCSW-R
I had just experienced a tragic loss, and felt my whole world had collapsed. My own skin didn't even feel safe. But here, in this room, with my life raft, my wise and reassuring therapist, I felt, at times that I could be okay again someday. Bridging my current devastation with a first look at my childhood trauma was something akin to doing yoga in a 6.7 earthquake. The only way this could work was if she stayed very, very still.
I walked through the door having barely made it to therapy day, and with no prior notice found the entire room redecorated. Everything is magnified and more severe when it's your therapist, and so as she sat perched on a gaudy silver brocade loveseat, she felt to me like the Ice Queen. A huge glass coffee table in what used to be open space between us may as well have been a brick wall. My chair no longer had arm rests, and I pictured myself sliding off the edge into a heap on the floor one fine day.
I felt obligated to compliment and congratulate her, betraying my own feeling of having been ripped out of the ground. I felt I had lost my predictable holding environment and stood naked in a storm. I bravely expressed my distress. She suddenly pushed the coffee table roughly to the side, unspoken anger flaring in her eyes. Her reflection that I don't want any boundaries between us sounding more like an accusation. I felt bereft.
When I work with my own clients on concepts like distress tolerance, feeling two feelings at once, traps, needs, wants and dreams, one personal example I use is my experience of having an office in the perfect location but having to sublet someone else's space, filled with their own belongings. And so when the good news arrived that the space was to become my own, "this is your dream!" was reflected back empathically by my clients.
This was our space, and so it was to be our project. I shared with them my feeling that the space was too dark and a bit outdated, and tossed out some of my ideas for improving the comfort and energy of their holding environment. I invited their input and special requests: "a fountain!" "a throw blanket!" "a foot rest!" “a toy box!” "paint over those brown doors!" "make the room smaller!" "make it lavender!" We giggled, we compromised, and I jotted things down, showing my respect for the sensitivities inherent in the change. I reassured them that they would receive an update each week on what would be different by next week. I laid the carpet samples against the wall for 2 weeks and awaited their questions and comments.
It was interesting to observe how a room that felt dark and depressing, actually felt too large to most of my clients; my trauma being impingement while theirs was more often not enough closeness. While one client wanted a cozy throw blanket to wrap herself in, another, who routinely wraps herself in her coat, was horrified by the idea wrapping herself in something that was from me. While one wanted bigger art, another was afraid the art would trigger her.
We had never really discussed the experience of the space beyond my frustration that it wasn't my own, but upon invitation, what came out was rich, diagnostic and collaborative. And fun. I bought a wicker “self-soothing basket” and quickly it was filled with donations; things to squeeze, things to twist, things to click, things to twirl; a pink teddy bear.
Then there was the truly touching part. My clients knew I had recently lost my mother who was also a psychotherapist and my mentor. Several had asked cautiously if I had been the one to disassemble her office. To my deep surprise, several of them asked if I could include some items that had been in my mother's office. I showed them the ceramic polar bear and the collection of tiny little bottles I used to play with on her office floor as a child, and they lit up.
As I reflect on the experience, I feel gratitude for knowing what it felt like to have my holding environment uprooted traumatically, I feel gratitude for a space of my own, and I feel gratitude for the knowledge that it isn't my own, but ours.
Lili Goralnick, LCSW-R Wesley Hills, NY
teens, adults, couples and group psychotherapy