“I’m sorry I’m such a fuckup.”
Immediately, my heart broke and my head boiled over. I got simultaneously warm and frozen for just a moment as my system attempted to reconcile the dissonance of my own feelings around this transfer and my clients experience of herself in that moment.
At that moment, receiving the news that after trying for almost a week to find a placement, one had been found and was happening soon, I was feeling cautiously optimistic. I wasn’t over the moon elated, but if I was ever going to work with this client again, this treatment stage was a necessary step. I was excited, even relieved that rather than dying, this client was now in range to work intensively on herself, with structure and containment not possible in outpatient work. I was having an experience of clarity: this was happening, and I was accepting and hopeful. I was breathing a sigh of relief that the sturm and drang of living on this planet, in this reality, given the constraints and circumstances, was going to continue for this client, instead of ending in suicide as we had both expected.
I’m sorry I’m such a fuckup.
Do you hear those words? Do you hear them in your skull? Are they landing in your wiring, and are they sticking?
I’m sorry I’m such a fuckup.
I CAN’T DO ANYTHING WITH THIS!!!
Ok, that’s not true. That’s my shame talking. This is actually the start of ALL my work with clients in our work together. This is the ground floor, and we return here often because this shame core was built long ago, and still has its run when we are overwhelmed and uncontained.
This is what I can offer: I still have my perceptions, which are (there but for the grace of god go I) not in alignment with this clients perception at this given moment. I breathed slowly, connecting to the part of myself that remembers to breathe every now and again before reacting, and wrote the following in about 30 seconds. These messages always come in flashes, and exit through my fingers quickly.
“Everyone needs to go to the hospital every now and again.
Doesn’t mean you’re a fuckup…in fact it doesn’t mean anything about you as a person unless you make it mean that. More often, it’s an indication that what was happening before admission wasn’t working. Just a course correction…not the end of the world. A higher level of care is just that…a higher level of care…it is temporary, value neutral, and a stable platform to build your own on.
If you want to use it to make yourself bad and wrong…that’s your business. I’m not seeing it that way, and I want to invite you to join me. Take this seriously, but don’t take it personally. It’s a subtle shift, but an important one. You’re going to kick butt.”
What did I do here? I want to unpack this, because it connects to something REALLY important to me and how I work as a therapist and human. I don’t fear that you will steal my work, or that somehow by telling you what I did it diminishes the value or impact. To cloud therapy in mystery, theory, and method is to miss what I strive for: a firm grasp on the obvious and full transparency.
So here’s the obvious: my client was expressing shame. Her apology: “I’m sorry I’m such a fuckup,” is not an apology at all, but a merely an indicator to me that in that moment, she had crossed over into her shame core, and that required something of me.
Here’s the other obvious thing: what I had to do in that moment in order to respond, rather than react, was to not feel shame myself. I had to get bigger, so that I could offer her that. Offer is all I can do…feel it myself, and offer it as an option. Even if it isn’t taken, it’s my primary directive to offer. Here’s the transparency: I’ve felt no shortage of reactivity around this situation. I’m human – I get to react. However, as a therapist, I have a job to transcend that reactivity before responding to my clients.
Shame sucks. Literally. It sucks the action out of us and pulls us into paralysis and isolation. My client had just kicked ass and took names: She had successfully responded to her own suicidality by seeking hospitalization, had been compliant while there, communicated with me throughout, and advocated for herself and found a placement that was going to work with her insurance. That’s amazing!
So here’s my job in therapy…it’s one I do better than some and not as great as others, I’m sure. I can promise you that I will never react out of my own shame. I may (will) make a lot of mistakes, and may (will) not always look polished. What I can commit to, with body and soul, is to speak from the place in me that sees all things as temporary, no matter how long they last. Your behaviors, your reactions, your coping tools, your patterns…they are all neutral in my book. I’m so glad you have all of them, and I would never be so rude as to assume they ARE you. You contain them, and you can change your relationship to them.
Thank you for being honest. When you say “I’m sorry I’m such a fuckup” to me, I honor that voice, invite it in, and then respectfully offer my own voice because I don’t have to agree with you to love you. You may look like only a fuckup to yourself right now, but I see the rest of you when you can’t because shame is blocking your light. That’s my job, and I’m committed to it.
For more information and shame, please pick up a copy of Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. It’s required reading for humans.