Lisa, a ten-year old girl, came to my office with her recently divorced parents. In tears she said to her parents “you ruined my life.” She continues, “everything about my life is bad.” Her mother says “can you be more specific?” Lisa repeats “everything about my life is bad”. I can see what Lisa is saying. I can see that both parents are confused because Lisa is vague, yet passionate at the same time. I say “I think Lisa is trying to describe what it feels like to have divorced parents”. I continue “it is like a house with a bad foundation, it looks fine, but the owner knows that in a strong wind, or a minor earthquake, the house would fall.” “In other words,” I say, “Lisa is talking about her profound sense of vulnerability since the two of you have separated.” Both parents, with unbelievably sad expressions, nodded with a sigh of recognition. They seemed to both understand the concept that looking fine is not the same as feeling fine. They also seemed to understand the concept of vulnerability, which is to say, that although everything is stable at this moment, it is hard to live in the world with the feeling that a minor perturbation could cause a very large setback. “What can we do?” The mother asked me. My response was predictable, and yet it needed to be said. “Understanding is what you need to do.”
Lisa felt that the only thing that could make her world “whole” again was for her parents to reconcile. Her parents love her deeply, but they are clear that they cannot live with each other. Lisa has to learn to accept her new reality of what feels to her to be a shaken world. Her parents are not going to change the reality, but they can learn to understand how their decision has changed Lisa.
Lisa’s parents were admirable in their ability to hear Lisa, without getting defensive. Their tears spoke volumes about how deeply sad and helpless they felt. Both of them wanted to take Lisa’s pain away. Both of them knew they could not do that without an unbearable sacrifice to their own sense of themselves. They were torn, but at the same time, they were focused on how they could aid Lisa in her struggle to adjust to her new life.
In this session, I felt that my role was to state the obvious. I did not tell Lisa or her parents anything they did not know before they walked into my office. Still, they needed to have an analogy, in this case, the foundation of a house, to grab on to Lisa’s vulnerability. They also needed to be reassured that understanding was an action. Listening to Lisa’s pain was hard, but necessary. They knew that, but they seemed to appreciate the gentle reminder.
I fantasize that Lisa will grow up to be a psychotherapist. I was in awe at Lisa’s ability to state directly, to both her parents at the same time, how she was feeling. Although she was very sad, she also seemed hopeful that if they could understand her pain, she could plow through this experience. She also seemed to feel that if her parents got defensive, then she would feel worse. She took a big risk. Her courage was palpable. Eventually, she stopped crying. I think to myself that the combination of Lisa’s courage, her sensitivity and her eloquence are the essential ingredients for a mental health professional.
Understanding is an action. That is a simple concept. Yet, as with Lisa’s parents, when the people who have to understand are also the people who caused the pain, understanding is a really hard action to take. My office provided an opportunity to take this really difficult, but necessary step. Although it is trite to say, in this case, a little help seemed to go a long way.