I was not at my best the other day. I met with a patient I’ve seen a handful of times who is struggling with managing her depression. I won’t lie, I was feeling frustrated. This was our fourth meeting and it was almost verbatim the same conversation we had had in our three previous sessions: her son is annoying, she hates getting older, she wants to meet a man, the people in her building are awful… Every single thing in her life is terrible as far as she’s concerned. It’s an exhausting conversation. Today I just couldn’t take it anymore. So I said (gently), “We’ve been having the same conversation every time you come in.” To which she answered, “Should I not come back?”
I can be honest here, in my safe space, the blog that a half dozen of my lovely friends read: I was briefly tempted to say, yep, don’t come back. But I’m a professional and I can’t give in to my baser instincts. Instead, I silently checked the feeling and took a breath. “That’s not what I meant,” I clarified. “I just meant: I can’t change the way you feel. What I can do is help you figure out how to make changes to try to feel better. And if you don’t want to do that—which is your right!—that’s fine. But if that’s the case, then I don’t know how I’m going to be any help to you.”
Her reply was, “It’s hard.”
Just like that, my compassion came rolling back to me. My shoulders dropped a little (I hadn’t even realized how tense I had been, how physically rigid in reaction to my frustration). She was right: it is so hard. It is hard to feel stuck and depressed and lethargic and not be able to see your way towards the light. It feels permanent, even though it’s not. It feels like shit.
In that small sentence she reminded me of two things: one, it is hard and I should not forget that; and two, it’s not my problem to fix.
I don’t mean to sound cold. But here we are again at another truth of The Work: you cannot do it for someone else. I can’t wave a wand and have this woman feel better. I can only lead her to her own conclusions. And the right thing to do when faced with the frustration I felt is not to say, yeah don’t come back; instead, it’s to push through the ambivalence and the frustration that she is surely feeling and help her decide to make a change.
I don’t know if she will come back; I may have messed up enough that she seeks help elsewhere. I hope that’s not the case. Either way, another learning point for me: check that counter-transference before it interrupts the relationship! This is part of the reason we continue to have supervision throughout our careers: to manage the feelings that bubble up and interrupt. After all, we’re only human.