Friday, February 19, 2010

A Kick in the Pants

Christmas gifts.
It has taken a while, but I've developed a whole new respect for my family and friends. Not so long ago in a galaxy not so far from this one, I was angry with them for waiting until after the divorce to tell me they feared I was about to marry "Jacqueline the Ripper."

"Gee, thanks, why didn't you tell me?!" I asked.

"You were so much in love, we didn't think you'd listen. Besides, we wanted you to be happy and we hoped we might be wrong."

That wasn't much comfort because it shifted responsibility back to me and I would have liked to transfer some onto their shoulders for a change. We do that when we're grieving -- it doesn't help but we try anyway. But they had a point and even on the best of days, the best relationships can get messy.

Since then, I've had a few experiences of my own along this line, and realized how damnably difficult it can be, telling someone what they really don't want to hear. It happens a lot in therapy, as you might guess. Therapists are paid to tell the truth even when it hurts -- it's our job. Of course, when a patient asks why you've delayed telling them their particular truth, your response is usually a variant of, "You weren't ready to hear it." I know that sounds like a cop out, but waiting until a patient can bear what you have to say without being overwhelmed is critical. Even the most well-intentioned and skillful of scalpel strokes can inadvertently nick the wrong tissue.

We're cautious because we only have an hour -- 50 minutes is more like it -- and the patient has to walk out of the office able to cope with what's been discussed until their next session. In the meantime, you want to be as certain as possible they're going to be okay. If not, you have absolutely no business speaking up. Just because you can handle telling them, doesn't mean they can handle hearing it. And if you can tell them without it hurting you, it helps to wait until it does. Words to the wise, for budding therapists, counselors, and members of the medical community.

An unnamed eight year old has said, "Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas, if you stop opening presents and listen."For the love of those closest to us to express itself, and for us to hear it, we might have to be willing to take a step back from our preoccupation with romance. That's asking a lot, I realize, and I'm not sure I could have taken my own advice back in the Dark Ages. It would have helped immensely if I had and therein lies the blessing of experience. As it is, I've become a lot more empathetic with those who were hoping for the best. That was love, too -- though, in retrospect, a kick in the pants might have been better yet.

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