Setting Limits

I made it through another week’s trauma therapy session. After turning physically ill last week when my therapist had me visualizing aspects of the memories of the attack I suffered, I was especially reluctant to attempt similar exercises in yesterday’s session. However, instead of working myself into a frantic heap of anxiety before the session in anticipation of the emotional pain and potential physical distress, I felt calm. The calmness almost felt like detachment, like a form of protective denial about the impending storm of the appointment. Since I’m never calm about therapy, and especially antithetical to calm after upsetting trauma work and vomiting, this relative serenity felt disturbingly foreign and almost inherently worrisome in its unfamiliarity. It’s almost like when you always feel a certain way in your mind and body but then you have some sort of paradoxical experience, it feels strange and uncomfortable, resultantly.

As I sat in the unusual calm, my inherently anxious mind worries something was wrong with me. Am I sick? Why am I apathetic? Am I just paralyzed so much by fear for the session that I can’t perceive my feelings? Is this alexithymia? After mulling through my thoughts and trying to hold a metaphorical stethoscope up to my heart and brain to gauge my feelings and thoughts, I discovered the answer to all of those questions was “no.” Instead, I genuinely felt calm, not because I didn’t care or wasn’t worried about digging deeper into my painful memories, but because I felt resolved to tell her I needed a break from trauma discussions for the time being and focus on some of the many other issues I’m working on and confident in my ability to assert myself in this decision. That self-efficacy, coupled with the smart self-protective decision to temporarily hit pause on that domain of exploration, ushered in an appropriate, though unfamiliar, calm.

Because I’m so passive and unassertive, it’s novel for me to feel confident in my ability to speak my mind and stand my ground, defending my choices about my body, life, involvement in things, etc. I’ve discovered that developing and exercising these self-advocacy skills and comfort in doing so is vitally important for safety, self-efficacy, and extinguishing a huge burden of anxiety over the fear that things will happen to you seemingly out of your control or that you’ll be taken advantage of and not able to stick up for yourself or say “no.”

I’ve have routinely found myself in situations where I have agreed to go to something or do something that I don’t really want to do, but because I’m a people pleaser and the discomfort of disappointing someone is greater than my own discomfort of having to carry out the agreed up obligation, I usually silence my own assertions and comply with the request or status quo…anything to prevent ruffling feathers! I tend to be firmer and assert myself more aggressively in writing or email correspondence, so occasionally when I’ve given an expected “yes” in person to something I really don’t want to do, I’ll quickly follow up with an overly apologetic response that backs me out of the obligation. Even though this honors my needs, it never feels good because it feels like breaking a commitment. (As an important aside, my diffidence played no role in getting raped and attacked. I fought physically and verbally against my attacker until it became unsafe to do so. I was irrefutably clear in my assertion of NO.)

I think that having the confidence to assert yourself and stand behind your decisions and advocate for your needs is largely incongruent with low-esteem. Instead, it reflects high regard and respect for oneself, and the conviction that one’s thoughts and needs are valuable. With the low self-esteem that has characterized my entire life after the age of nine, it follows that I’d be reluctant to honor and voice my opinions and feelings. Although the connection is logical, it’s a pattern I need to disrupt with a dual-prong approach, attacking both issues. They are damaging my health, ego, and self-worth. From a practical perspective, it seems easier to start with asserting myself more because that’s a concrete action rather than a belief. It’s much harder to change your view of your value and improve your self-esteem, especially if you’ve had twenty years of engraining the thinking pattern that you’re not worth as much as others or as much as you feel you “should” be. This isn’t to say I’m not invested in trying to improve my self-esteem; on the contrary, it’s been a goal for years and one I’ve addressed with therapists to develop effective strategies to employ. However, I’ve never acknowledged my need to be committed to voicing my true needs and opinions, even if they buck up against what is popular or will avoid conflict. Now that I’m aware of this overwhelming tendency, I’m consciously striving to change this behavior, but it’s a brand-new effort, in its infancy, so I imagine it’ll take time to more frequently assert myself with confidence.

Yesterday’s therapy session was a great place to practice exercising this change by stating with conviction, with no room for negotiation, that I did not want to engage in trauma-focused work again in sessions until I, myself, gave the explicit go-ahead or brought it up on my own volition. Although it seems that logically, a therapist would be totally fine (if not proud) of his or her client expressed any type of need regarding treatment, I carry the idea that therapists, like all “superiors” are people I want to impress, or at least not disappoint. This makes me feel reluctant to voice anything that can be perceived as dissension. Accordingly, I was a bit nervous to do so, but surprisingly, I sat with a big physical presence (good posture, squared body facing her, etc.) and immediately vocalized my decision as soon as the session started. She did try to suggest we revisit the topic once a week only in a brief discussion, but I stuck to the decision I came to over the week since the vomiting that no, I don’t want to do that until I say so. I’m proud of how unwavering I remained in my self-advocacy. Thankfully, after her one attempt to negotiate more of a happy medium approach, she agreed that that’s totally fine and we moved on in the session. No mention of anything surrounding the attack surfaced for the rest of the session, which isn’t to say I didn’t do hard work in therapy; we just focused on other issues.

I know I have a long road ahead of changing this long-withstanding diffidence and exceedingly low self-esteem. At least I’m in a place where I see these weaknesses and their dangerous repercussions, and am learning ways to remedy them. Part of what we turned to in the session yesterday was a conversation about this very issue, so I’m hoping that I will start to improve in these areas. I can hardly remember having good self-esteem anymore since it’s been over twenty years, but I can only imagine that it will naturally yield genuine happiness more readily and reduce the pervasiveness and magnitude of my anxiety. While unfamiliar, that will feel amazing!

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