Svetlana Dremach (Latvia). Growing Up to Freedom
At the moment she came to see a psychotherapist, Alija had been living together with her boyfriend, Daniil, for two months. He had moved in to her apartment after dating her for two months.
Alija told me how the couple began to have frequent arguments, which seemed to follow the same scenario. The arguments would begin with Daniil reproaching Alija and end with both taking offence and Alija trying to make peace. The client shared anxiety that she did not understand what was happening in their relations and was not sure if they should go on; her feelings were strong and contradictory, and she felt at a loss what to do.
The therapeutic work centred on several issues. Chronologically, the first was the theme of feelings and emotions of the client towards her partner and ways of expressing them when communicating with him. Besides, at the initial exploration stage, the focus was on the analysis of the client’s real situation. To understand to what extent the complaints and reproaches in relationship with the partner corresponded to reality, it seemed important to gather facts. By studying particular situations, it became clear how exactly the interaction between Alija and Daniil took place, what they said to each other, why and how their arguments began.
Exploring the client’s sense of unfairness and of being insulted allowed to discuss what she expected of the relations and of Daniil in particular. Alija found it hard to comprehend deep pain caused by disappointment and ruin of her illusions about ideal relations. It was hard for her to accept her negatively coloured feelings, and even harder to acknowledge the feelings of her partner expressed by his reproaches and demands. At first, it was easier for her to accuse the partner and, at the same time, to wallow in the sense of her guilt. First changes happened when she accepted her authorship of her own feelings: Daniil was not offending her, it was her who felt offended by him, and that was her own specific reaction to experience guilt when she was being accused of something.
The next stage in the work was the theme of Alija expressing her feelings. The client discovered for herself that she felt the threat of losing her space, of losing freedom as a result of accusations, reproaches and her partner’s attempts to control her. Then she felt anger and reacted strongly, but tried to hide it; instead, she began to ignoring her partner. Exploring this phenomenon enabled us to address her adolescent experience and helped the client see that it was a way of defending her boundaries built in relationship with her mother. The therapist facilitated understanding of the connection between her psychic condition, behaviour and her boyfriend’s discontent.
By beginning to better understand herself, Alija became able to listen to her partner better and to see the reality of their relations. As a result of analysing particular life situations, it came as an unpleasant revelation to her that Daniil has an addiction to alcohol, of which she had not been conscious.
Speaking of Alija’s feelings towards the therapist, she first distrusted me and was careful, as she anxiously anticipated the meeting and felt vulnerable in the face of criticism and advice. This attitude and the pain of her feelings first put me at a loss and made me anxious, but these feelings decreased as I was gaining my therapeutic position of acceptance and empathy.
As our contact was reinforced, the openness in our relations grew. The client, in her here-and-now work, was able to express her discontent and anger at the therapist for the fact that working with a therapist did not help to mend the relations, which had a therapeutic effect on her, as it facilitated her understanding and acceptance of her own anger and helped her to gain experience in communication when this feeling was being accepted by another person without making their relations worse but, on the contrary, facilitating greater closeness. For my part, I shared my own sense of vulnerability in the face of this closeness, because I understood the risk of openness of my feelings and of my openness to the feelings of another person. At the same time, I understood that closeness was impossible without this risk, and this gave me strength and courage. Besides, I shared that in relationship with her I sometimes seemed to lose her, and it caused me tension. I think it could have given the client a better understanding of how another person could react to her way of being.
Later, Alija returned to this moment and remarked that she wanted to have open relations with other people, too, when she could honestly speak about her feelings without being rejected.
The main emphasis in my work was a therapeutic position to create a space where, on the one hand, there was an atmosphere of acceptance and safety, and which, on the other hand, allowed active exploration of the client’s difficulties. Also, it was important to move at the client’s pace, not to push and to stay in the position of un-knowing, avoiding hurried understanding and not offering my themes for discussion.
Among therapeutic changes, there was a better recognition and understanding of the client of her own feelings, accepting their authorship and their significance as important indicators of her perception of herself and of her life. Next was Alija’s understanding of her internal conflict between her need for autonomy and freedom and the need to be loved and needed, and the way it influenced her relations with her boyfriend.
Another therapeutic change was her recognition of the pattern of passive-aggressive behaviour, understanding its origins, meaning, secondary gains and consequences both for herself and for her relations with another person. As a result, Alija became freer in expressing her feelings in both verbal and non-verbal ways.
Among important therapeutic changes, there was also broadening of the boundaries of the client’s self-consciousness, which enabled the client to get rid of some of her illusions and to see the reality of her relations with her boyfriend. Also, her personal borders became clearer, she developed an ability to choose, tolerating the feelings of guilt and anxiety and accepting responsibility for her choice.
These changes took place, first, thanks to Alija’s hope for a change in the situation due to her work with the therapist and the therapist’s belief in the possibility of changes and the strength of the client. Second, due to the contact and trust between the client and the therapist and to the therapeutic space for their cooperative study of the client’s life. Third, life itself, the events between our appointments, influenced these changes, which emerged not only during the session work but also in the client’s life, finding their expression in her search for a new way of being.
In existential understanding, these changes can be interpreted as the client’s widening of her vision of herself, of the world and of herself in the world, which took place as a result of her concentrating on her consciousness and of her understanding of important aspects of herself and of the reality. Besides, it was expressed as part of Alija’s encounter with the given of being-with-another, which was reflected in the internal conflict she had been experiencing and the need to take responsibility for herself. In the client’s understanding, she took responsibility for her life by leaving the relations that were destructive for her, while increasing her openness to the world.
Looking back, I see that this case proved to me the idea that a person can be understood only in the context of his/her relationship with other people; as part of this context, a person is also responsible for creating it.