A friend tells me about his therapy and his therapist. For session after session — weeks, now — my friend has tried to explain the history between his brother and himself. He has taken great pains to describe the great pain he carries about the relationship — chronically disrespectful, disdainful, scornful, critical and bullying. Never physically abusive, but emotionally cold and sometimes just plain humiliating. Since as long as my friend can remember.
The therapist digs for pieces of the puzzle. Puts the pieces together. Helps my friend feel his feelings of sadness, anger and emptiness, not to mention helplessness in the relationship. My friend feels less crazy. Affirmed. My friend has an advocate.
The therapist makes suggestions — once, twice, then abruptly stops, and resumes merely listening. “That’s confusing,” my friend says. “Why do you guys do that?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I wasn’t there. I’ll tell you what, though. I do that when patients start arguing with me.”
“But I’m not arguing with him,” my friend says, completely missing the irony that he is arguing with me about even the possibility of whether he’s arguing with his own therapist.
“Let me be more specific,” I say. “I mean when a patient starts up with ‘Yeah, but …’ and ‘But I’ve tried that …” and other trumping of every possible movement forward in the dilemma. That’s when I shut my mouth and listen more to the patient’s attachment to the dilemma. That’s when I shrug and agree that the situation is hopeless. Because sometimes patients really, really need their stuckness. Said another way, sometimes patients are really afraid to imagine a life without their stuckness.
What on Earth might happen to the relationship if they refused to tolerate chronic disrespect or injustice?”
“Well, that all stopped in our last session,” my friend says. “I was ranting about my last family visit, and … well, he just interrupted me and said, ‘Had enough yet?’ “
The silence yawns for a moment, until I say, “Wow. Now there’s a pregnant question.”
Hey Mr. Mystery Therapist! I don’t know who you are, but that was pretty cool. If you don’t mind, I’m stealing that question and putting it in my toolbox. It’s the perfect intervention. It’s an actual, genuine question. And, really, there are only two possible answers: yes, or no. Either we’ve had enough, and will therefore proceed with radical changes in the relationship, or we haven’t yet had enough, and will continue to tolerate the relationship as it is, likely complaining about it to whomever might tolerate us.
By the way, “I don’t know” is the same as “No, I haven’t yet had enough. I’m good with things as they are.”
“Enough!” — it’s so utterly liberating. And it’s such an utter human mystery how and why and when we each, individually, know when it’s enough. From the outside looking in, the moment and the decisive measure might appear pretty arbitrary.
I’ll never really know how or why I picked an evening in March of my 34th year to hang up on my chronically abusive relative. It’s not like being degraded by this guy was anything new or surprising. But, one minute, I was being profaned; next thing I knew, the phone was in the cradle and I was staring — shocked — at my empty hand like it belonged to someone else.
“It did belong to someone else,” my own therapist offered in our next session. “I think the adult Steven finally showed up, took the phone from the paralyzed child and said ‘Enough!’ ”
Yeah. Enough. Has a lovely ring to it.
Had enough? This intervention isn’t merely useful between you and a remorseless, unrepentant antagonist. It also works intra-psychically. Between you and you.
Enneagram scholar and international teacher/speaker Helen Palmer says it this way: “You have to get sick of it!” Meaning, sick of the way you’re feeling. Sick of the way you’re acting. Sick of the way you’re living. You have to look in the mirror and say, “I’m just sick of it.”
Enough! Done! No more! I’m sick of it!
Now things can change. Not before.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at email@example.com.