Mother’s Little Helper
I can spot a fake smile at a hundred yards. The eyes are what give it away. He’s a great kid – got himself into some routine teenage trouble and got caught. He’s been seeing me for a few months now. We started off slow, got to the heart of the matter and resolved it. He doesn’t need to be here and we both know it. His mom’s sitting next to him looking especially anxious. I ask the kid how he’s doing and his mother answers, “He says he’s happy but I think he’s repressing his real feelings.” I exchange a glance with the kid. He rolls his eyes and tell me, “Well, I’m good…how are you, mom?”
Mom is wringing her hands. Her shoulders are attempting to massage her ear lobes. Her legs are bouncing slightly but rapidly. With a transparently fake smile she offers the predictable response, “I’m fine!” I’m not much for social etiquette. I study her eyes for a few seconds and say, “Um, no. No you’re not.” I know how this plays out. She’s a single mom and while I have tremendous respect for single mothers I also understand that there is no way in hell that she is going to do anything for herself until she has received 42 assurances, objective proof, and a sworn affidavit that her babies really are fine.
It’s difficult to reassure a person who has significant amounts of anxiety. They’re listening but they can’t hear you. The hamster wheel is spinning, the voice of self doubt is nagging, and every worrisome thing that was ever said to them is surfacing at the same time. I encourage her to breathe deeply and slowly. This has the net effect of triggering her defenses. She’s feeling exposed because she knows that I know that she’s struggling to hold it together and this is NOT OKAY. She is a pro at pretending and she is painfully afraid of losing her composure. She is none the less on the verge of losing it.
“There’s a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen
Her muscle tension makes me ache. Her fists and jaw are clenched but she is silently crying. She apologizes profusely as if this is somehow unacceptable behavior. Sadly, it is unacceptable to her. She wipes the tears away forcefully with the back of her hand because taking one of the tissues from the table in front of her would be defeat. She clears her throat and in those three seconds I know that in her head she is likely screaming at herself. Probably something like, “Get your shit together!” She’ll hate it if I tell her, “it’s okay” so I don’t. Instead I ask her how much weight she’s carrying on her shoulders? She studies my face because there’s a decision to make. Her shoulders drop and with a heavy sigh she says, “a lot.” I ask her if she’d like to unload and it all comes pouring out.
Just half an hour later we’ve covered the fourteen most pressing concerns/fears/problems in her life. She feels relieved and overwhelmed in the same moment. Unloading has released the pressure but it has also allowed her to take stock of exactly how fucked she believes her life to be. While this woman certainly has a rough road ahead, the biggest difficulty might be the vast distance between what she expects of herself and what any human being can possibly do. She chronically disappoints herself because she sets out to do the impossible. The problem with trying to be perfect is that we inevitably fall short and (careful, false beliefs ahead) not having things turn out perfectly is disappointing and being disappointed means I did it wrong and doing it wrong means I am a failure. I run her own beliefs by her and she hangs her head because even though she knows better she does not accept that there are limits to what she can do. Super women finish last.
I suggest that she write out what she demands of herself as though it were a job description. She shudders. “I’d never expect anyone to do what I do.” In this way she has isolated herself. She knows other women who are in similar straights but because she does not judge them as she judges herself she sees herself as uniquely inadequate (failure = shame). What she is aware of doing would be enough to keep three people busy. What she is perhaps unaware of are the things that are kicking her ass.
She does not realize that she sees herself as solely responsible for the emotional health and well being of everyone she cares about. What she believes is that her job is to make people happy and if they are not happy then I must have missed something there must have been something I could have done that would save them heartache/prevented their disappointment/made them smile even though it rained on their parade/why did it have to rain? I should have planned better).
She jokes about having “control issues.” The truth is she needs to feel like she’s in control of everything because this illusion affords her the comfort of believing that everything will be okay as long as I plan for it and as long as I anticipate what’s coming around the corner. She checks her horoscope daily just to be on the safe side. She watches the weather channel even when she knows she’ll be home all day just in case. She insists that her loved ones call when they get where they’re going and she holds her breath until they get there.
She has been pretending for years that even those closest to her have no idea that she lives with anxiety. They tease her about always cleaning, organizing, planning, doing busy work, and talking too much about unimportant things. They plead with her to relax and take time for herself. She tells them that she will rest right after everything is taken care of, knowing that day never comes. What she is not willing to acknowledge is that her anxiety prevents her from being as emotionally present and as connected to those she loves as she could be. She is also unwilling to acknowledge that her anxiety prevents reciprocity in her life – because she fears vulnerability, those she loves will never be allowed to give back to her. This will likely lead to those she loves feeling guilty without understanding why.
“Running on empty. Running low. Running dry. Running into the sun but I’m running behind”- Jackson Brown
Deep down in our guts is a place where truth is easily if painfully recognized. People with anxiety usually understand that they are running from themselves. As long as we can run we do not have to be aware and as long as we are not aware then we do not feel much of what we are avoiding. For the most part, as long as people can continue to run, they will. Most of the folks who come to see me have hit a wall and they can no longer run, or what they used to run on doesn’t work anymore. This is why we encourage people to get help before they must. We’ve always believed that we’re at our best when our back is to the wall – but the truth is we just have a lot of experience being in that position. Better to do it while it is a choice. When would you like to be happier?