Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 16, 2013
What happens when you don’t like your husband’s friends? Do you pretend you do or do you make a fuss? If you make a fuss, do you feel guilty about that? Rainer, thirty-three, comes to mind. She has sleepless nights every time she and her husband go to dinner with her husband’s college roommate and his wife. She has not linked those two events together, but after many months of working with her, we have connected those dots. “Maybe you have trouble with your dinner dates?” I say, giving her permission to not like all comers. “Yes, but what am I going to do? Should I tell John (husband) that I won’t go any more? That would not come down well,” she says, suggesting that she has thought about this before. “Why can’t you tell John how you feel?” I say, suggesting that the holding in of feelings, seems to leak out in her slumber time. “He will get mad,” she says, as if to end the conversation. “Ok” I say, “so you tip-toe around him to avoid his anger?” I say, suggesting that anger can be a form of control. “I feel like a bad person for not liking his friends,” she says, making me pause. “That is curious,” I say, wondering how she leaps from not liking his friends to being a bad person. “I am thinking that if you do not have the same feelings as your husband has, then there must be something wrong with you. It is as if you do not feel entitled to have your viewpoint of the world.” I say, seeing Rainer in a new light. “Yes, I think you are telling me I have low self-esteem, and I have to agree with you, ” she says in a sad and reflective way.
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Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 28, 2013
Julia and Rebecca, both fifty-nine, have been friends for fifty years. Ten years ago, Rebecca, after getting divorced decided to become a psychotherapist. Now, Rebecca has a private practice, but she has noticed that her relationship with Julia suddenly took a strange turn. “You are not trying to analyze me,” Julia will say to Rebecca, with hostility and fear. Rebecca, disarmed by the comment, and scared, in turn, about the hostile feelings being transmitted, “You have known me so long, do I sound any different than I did before I became a therapist?” Rebecca asks, trying to deflate the intensity of the moment. Julia does not answer. Rebecca comes to me for help, trying to understand how her new professional identity is impacting her relationships in general, and with Julia, in particular. “I think some people forget what I do for a living, whereas other people get very anxious, as if I can read their mind, and others still, seem to hope that I will say something brilliant, even though I am tired and trying to relax. ” Rebecca says, reminding me how surprised she feels that a change in her career has this unintended consequence. “I wonder if those of your friends and family feel like you can glimpse at their unconscious, then maybe that scares them.” I say, highlighting the issue that the unconscious can rise and fall in awareness, and that Rebecca’s presence might remind them of this undulating experience. “Yes, but what am I to do?” Rebecca asks impatiently. “Maybe you need to make sure there is mutuality in the relationship so that the asymmetry of a a therapeutic relationship is not replicated in your personal relationships.” I say, knowing personally, how hard this is, and thinking about my own experiences in this regard. “Yes, but I want to listen and yes, I also want to be listened to,” but when I do listen, I feel like I am making Julia, in particular, uncomfortable.” Rebecca says with frustration and sadness. “Like any other bump in a relationship, it seems like you need to put it on the table.” I say, suggesting that an open dialogue could ease the flow. “I wish I had thought about this before jumping into this career.” Rebecca says, perhaps suggesting a major regret, but I am not sure. Here, Rebecca is a therapist, a patient, and a friend. As such, she is struggling to become comfortable or fluid within all of these relationships. This fluidity will help her balance her life in such a way that she is more comfortable in her skin. Maybe her unconscious desire to become a therapist was a search for meaning in all of her connections and so now she is despairing to think that her career path might, in fact, scare her loved ones. This discussion will be for another time.
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Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 30, 2013
Celeste, forty-one, opens the session, “Larry told me I was a bad hugger.” I do not know who Larry is. She has never mentioned him before. Celeste looks perplexed, if not a little hurt. Where do I go from here? Do I ask her about Larry? Do I wait for her to give me more material? Do I ask how she felt when he said this? I opt for waiting, but Celeste does not continue. I am curious about that. It seems as though Celeste feels both bad about herself and hurt by this comment, all at the same time. Her silence seems to suggest a certain uneasiness in talking about this. “I don’t know Larry, but it seems like his statement penetrated you.” I say, opening up a conversation about the meaning of her opening and the meaning of her cryptic speech. She knows that I do not know about Larry. She has given me an appetizer, as I await for the main meal. “Well, of course it is insulting. Wouldn’t you be insulted?” She asks me, in a rather defensive, and not reflecting, tone. “I am curious why this matters to you and what you took it to mean.” I say, trying to encourage some ways to think about her experience. “I felt as if he was saying I was cold, and maybe I am, but what was I supposed to do with that information? I told him I needed lessons, but then he laughed.” Celeste explains how she felt insulted and helpless at the same time. “Were you trying to give him feedback about his comment?” I asked, pointing out that she responded with humor, perhaps in the hope that Larry could understand her helplessness. “What about the fact that you feel you may, in fact, be cold?” I ask, as this came as a surprise to me. “Temperamentally, I may be a cold person. I do not know if it is how I protect myself from getting hurt, but obviously, in this case, it did not work very well,” and then she laughs at her own comment. “Larry is a friend of mine,” she quickly adds, suddenly wanting to orient me to her life and how he fits in. “Maybe not telling me about Larry for the first forty minutes of our session is also a way of protecting yourself.” I say, suggesting that her cryptic beginning stemmed from fear of judgment, both mine and hers. “It is really not such a big deal,” she concludes our session, clearly minimizing her feelings, and wanting to leave with a crust, and not feel so vulnerable. “You tell yourself it is no big deal, when you mean that you wish it were no big deal.” I say, helping her recognize that she is speaking in wishes and not from her internal mental state. “Maybe if I tell myself that, it will be true.” Celeste explains a reason for her defensive comment. She is hoping to seal over the pain. She can see that there are levels of awareness and as our session concludes, she wants to return to a more unconscious, and wishful state. Luckily, I do not have to hug her goodbye.
Posted in Friendship, Psychotherapy, Relationships | 2 Comments »
Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 22, 2012
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Posted by Dr. Vollmer on August 14, 2012
Shai and Claire, girlfriends for forty years, now in their sixties, just “broke up” Shai tells me with sorrow. “Claire is just angry all the time. It is not my fault that her life did not turn out the way she wanted it to, but she seems to take that out on me and I can’t take it any more. ” I think about unconscious anger, the anger that comes out with the smallest frustration. The anger that seems so disproportionate to the situation. This is the anger that Shai describes in Claire. “Has it gotten worse over the years?” I ask Shai. “Well, it seems to. It actually got worse when I stopped being so accomodating. I used to dance around her anger and try to do things that made her happy so she would not get angry, but it turns out that I always felt like I was disappointing her no matter how hard I tried. ” Shai describes the frustration of what felt like to her to be a one-sided relationship which now she seems to have reached her limit. “It sounds like you feel like you made the right decision about ending the relationship.” I say, detecting Shai’s resolution that she had lost her patience with Claire. “Oh, absolutely, I feel like I made a good decision, but I am still sad about it,” Shai says. “It is like a break up of a romantic relationship. You may have decided to end it, but that does not mean that you are not suffering terribly.” I say, highlighting that friendships can be more intense than long term sexual relationships. “Yea, I feel like I am suffering quite a bit. I am angry with myself for not ending it sooner. I put up with her anger for years.” Shai says, reflecting back on her tolerance for hostility, which she believes decreased the quality of her life. “Why do you think you put up with it?” I ask, wondering about her perception that this was a masochistic relationship for her. “I think that I felt close to her for so many years that I did not want to lose the relationship, so I tried to tell myself that her anger was not so bad, but it was. She sucked me dry. Every time I was with her, I just felt her anger so strongly that it made me really unhappy to be with her. At the same time, we are fond of one another, so it was hard to balance out these conflicting factors. Nevertheless, I feel like life is too short to feel that anger, so I want to move on.” Shai says, with torture in her voice, since she sounds less certain that she is making the right decision. “Why don’t you see how it feels to not talk to her for a while, and then decide if you want to get back together or not?” I say, trying to help her see that time may or may not change her opinion, but she should stay open to that. “I don’t know. At this moment I know that her anger just grates at me, so I can’t take it.” Shai repeats, with the gravity of knowing that long-term friendships cannot be replaced.
Posted in Anger, Friendship, Psychotherapy | 2 Comments »
Posted by Dr. Vollmer on June 18, 2012
Maya comes in fuming about Lauren, age fifty-two. Lauren’s relationship to money, like her relationships to important people, speaks to a certain amount of withholding and selfishness. Maya, fifty-one, complains to me that her dear friend Lauren is “incredibly cheap.” “We go out to dinner and she always has to use a coupon, and then she never wants to contribute to the tip, and then, she thinks it is fun if we can go to an event, even one we don’t care about, if there is free food. I just hate it,” Maya continues. “I hate that each time we hang out, the focus becomes on how we can get something for free or for very low-cost. I just want to connect with her and have a really good conversation, whereas she is focused on having an evening where she can then brag about how she got something for a really good price.” “Is this a new problem?” I ask, knowing that Maya has been friends with Lauren for at least the last fifteen years. “No, but it is getting to me more. Now, I know you are going to ask me why I have become more sensitive to this, and of course, I have been thinking about that. My hunch is that as I get older, I am more and more focused on enjoying my relationships and so this makes me less patient with my friends and family who seem to be so neurotic that it detracts from our connection. Lauren may be having a good time, but I am not and Lauren knows that I don’t get pleasure out of getting something for half-price, so I see Lauren as being a bit selfish in those moments.” I pause to reflect on Maya’s analysis of her upset. “It sounds like you are saying that Lauren’s constant search for a bargain is a narcissistic act and as such, it takes away from the intimacy of your relationship.” “Yep,” Maya enthusiastically agrees with my re-stating her understanding of the disappointment that she experiences when thinking about Lauren. “I suppose you could talk to Lauren about this, or you could assume that this is an irritant to you, but that you will put up with it, given all of the other goodness that she brings to your life.” “Yea, I know that, but I am not sure what to do,” Maya says, acknowledging that she has already thought about whether to confront Lauren or whether to suck up her discontent. “Friendship can be hard when narcissistic forces dominate the interaction.” I say, making an overarching comment, not specific to Maya and Lauren. “Yea, I don’t think her cheapness dominates our relationship, but it certainly gets to me,” Maya says, reminding me that she has maintained perspective with regards to this irritant. In this session, Maya has done most of the psychoanalytic work, while I sit back and appreciate her reflecting on this important friendship. I have a deep sense of pride that I have helped Maya analyze her dilemmas in a way which is both balanced and authentic. It was a good day.
Posted in Friendship, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy | 4 Comments »
Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 27, 2012
“I am going to move to the Bay Area,” Noah, age sixty-two, has been saying for at least forty years. My sense is that Noah is saying “I wish that I had the courage to move to the Bay Area because I would be happier there.” He makes a declarative statement, when his behavior suggests that he wishes he could, but something, likely his fears, prevent him. When faced with this contradiction, Noah maintains that one day he will move up there, as if the fact that he has been saying this for many decades without taking action, makes sense. Noah, in this moment, is unable to appreciate that he is talking in wishes, and at the same time, paralyzed by fear.
Clarissa, forty-nine, Noah’s platonic friend, experiences exasperation every time Noah talks about moving. Clarissa fails to see that Noah is speaking in wishes, so she gets angry with him for what she calls “speaking nonsense.” “What if you thought of his statement as a wish?” I pose to her. “Well, are you saying that I need to remind myself that this is a wish, so that I don’t feel so violent towards him?” Clarissa asks. “Yes, understanding that people sometimes speak from their deep unconscious processes without any awareness that they are doing that. The Freudian slip is the prime example of such a phenomena.” I say, highlighting the idea that from time to time, we all reveal our underlying dynamics. The issue with Noah is that he reveals the inner workings of his mind to others, but he does not take stock of that for himself. In essence, his insight into himself is limited and that disturbs Clarissa. “Talking in wishes. You should blog about that,” Clarissa says. So, I did.
Posted in Friendship, Psychoanalysis, Psychotherapy, Relationships | 6 Comments »
Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 28, 2012
“I am sitting there at lunch, thinking to myself, why am I friends with her?” Laney, age fifty-five, tells me her angst about her friend Mallory, age sixty. “She goes on and on and it is not that I am bored, since she tells me interesting stories, it is just that she does not give me any room for me to think about my own life. When she does ask me questions about my kids or my work, she asks it in an obsessive way where she is more concerned about details than the big picture. I mean she will ask me where my son has lunch when I am trying to talk about my son’s wife. She often misses the main idea of what I am trying to say and that really bothers me. Of course, sometimes she does not do that, so I am confused. One thing for sure, though, is that I have never known anyone to tell stories with so much detail. I just feel so crowded out by our conversations.” Laney explains to me with sadness that her ten-year friendship with Mallory is now so unsatisfying. “What drew you together?” I ask, as with any dyad there is attraction, sometimes followed by repulsion. “Well, I was lonely and I hated my life, so when she did all the talking it was a relief, but now that I am feeling better there are things I want to talk about. So, unlike before, now her obsessive story-telling is annoying and not a relief.” Laney explains to me. “So, your relationship may not be durable in the sense that it worked when you were feeling bad, but it does not work well when you feel better. ” I say, echoing Laney’s lament. “Do you think you can talk to her about that?” I ask. “Well, I have tried, but Mallory seems to need me to listen and I used to do that, and my guess is that the relationship does not work well for her if I can’t be patient and listen to her obsessive storytelling,” Laney elaborates. “So, you think you have come to the end of the road?” I ask, expressing the sadness in that idea. “I don’t know. I just don’t know.” Laney says, expressing inner turmoil.
Once again, I am left to wonder how relationships endure change. The state of mind that brings two people together is bound to change and how some relationships can adapt to those changes, whereas other relationships crumble, intrigues me. My suspicion is that relationships which are formed when two people are in a good state of mind have a better prognosis, since a safety net is developed where they can move through varying moods and traumatic experiences, but fall back to the good times when they forged a relationship. By contrast, relationships that are formed when one or both people are emotionally needy are more vulnerable, since if the emotionally needy person becomes more stable, he/she is likely to no longer find that the relationship meets his/her needs. Laney and Mallory are a sad example.
Posted in Friendship, Psychotherapy, Relationships | 5 Comments »
Posted by Dr. Vollmer on March 19, 2012
I am curious about how a group of friends get together and spend time. Is it activity based or socially based? That is, do the group come together to do the same thing, like to ski or to play bridge, or does the group come together to share food and conversation. If the gathering is activity based, then generally speaking, people will feel that they fit in based on their perceived competency in the activity. On the other hand, if the activity is socially based, the ones who are more socially skilled will feel more at ease. Of course, this situation gets more complicated in that the more socially skilled folks are often the more sensitive folks so they can be more bothered by what they are perceiving to be unconscious processes at play. The layers of social interaction intrigue me, needless to say.
Alexis, sixty-one, describes to me how uncomfortable she felt at a gathering of dear old friends who seemed to be preoccupied discussing the successes of their respective children. Alexis has two children who are doing pretty well, but Alexis derives little pleasure in sharing the successes of her kids. She would rather talk about her new interests and passions, but none of her friends seem to want to engage with her about that, at least not at this particular party. “It is hard for you to adapt to different social situations because you are so uncomfortable with yourself,” I say, causing her to look at me, at first in shock, but then with an understanding that may be true. “You are not quite comfortable with the choices your adult children have made, and so when you are in an environment when that is the topic of conversation, you begin to recoil and you want to go home,” I say, pointing out that her discomfort at this party is a window into her triggers for anxiety, her vulnerabilities. “Parties can highlight vulnerabilities,” I say, stating that social gatherings are emotionally and psychologically complicated affairs. “Yes, I guess so. It was hard to sit with my feelings, so I wanted to leave,” Alexis says with candor and shame. “I stayed and got through it and it was nice to see my friends,” she continues to say that the party was indeed a layered event for her. “It is interesting how complicated a Sunday afternoon can be,” I say, stating that within daily, ordinary activities, emotions can rise high and low. Parties, as the word implies, creates all kinds of “parts” to our emotional interior.
Posted in Friendship, Parties, Psychotherapy, Relationships | 12 Comments »