Lean In and Linger in Stage One Work

Lean In and Linger:  Sandy sits in my office staring blankly at her partner.  Cindy’s tears flow down her face. Cindy has never cried in session.  Something touched her. Repeating the words she shared led to tears, “Alone too, you are alone too in this terrible dance.  You cannot reach Sandy through the explosions and the fog, so alone, yes, so alone?”

Her pain and sorrow rushes to the surface, “I am alone, it’s like when I was a kid.  I came home to tell my mom that kids were making fun of me.”  She looks at me with such yearning in her eyes, like she wants to know if it is o.k. with me, the therapist, that she share a weak moment of exclusion from her childhood.  Cindy’s emotion fuels the moment.

“The kids were making fun of you, teasing you, that was bad for you, yes?  I know that pain too of being teased.  You got brave and told your mom,” as I say this she nods her head. We are resonating.  I seek to attune to her experience. Sandy though looks stoic and unmoved.  This is our fifth session together.  Cindy’s normally withdrawn, shut down. Sandy’s lost and confused by this expanded emotional expression from her partner.  I work to stay near Cindy’s tears.

Cindy shares with me, “My mom, she is in the kitchen.  I must be 6 or 7 years old.  I tell her that they are making fun of me and she asks why, what are the making fun of?”  She cannot look at Sandy right now.  I sense that Cindy’s surprise at the memory and her own tears.  She’s so adept at avoiding what she calls, “unnecessary feelings.”

“I told her, they say I am a geek. What is that mommy? and my mom’s face changes.”  Her answer impacted Cindy more than her mother ever imagined.  She says, “My own mom says to me, ‘You are geek.  You are geeky little kid.  No wonder they make fun of you’,” and Cindy does not remember the rest of the talk.  Her face changes now.

“Something shut down in me that day,” Cindy’s tears have stopped, “I just started to tune her out.”  Her own mom seemed to be throwing her under the emotional bus. “Tears, who needs them.  This closeness stuff Sandy talks about, I don’t get it.”  I feel it; the shutting down side of me gets it.

The temptation arises to ask Cindy to turn and share her tears and pain with her partner, Sandy.  I could say to Sandy, “Can you turn and tell Sandy about your tears, about that little girl who went to her mom for support and got hurt instead?” I’d be off the hook emotionally, no longer the container, the holder of Cindy’s sorrow. Sandy’s countenance does not invite that enactment.  Plus, Cindy’s new found emotional experience is alive in the room.  So as a therapist, I hear my own EFT Jiminy Cricket whisper in my ear, “Lean In, Lean in to her tears and pain before she shuts down, lean in and linger Jim.”  It’s like Sue Johnson’s in the room (mentor, colleague)!

So I do lean in and Cindy protests a bit, “I don’t like to cry.”

“I know, that makes sense to me (validating), it makes sense that you don’t like to cry.  Tears can be painful, especially when we have to cry alone,” I pause and slow myself down. My body vibrates to her story.  My heart opens.  “I wonder if you cried that day after talking to your mom…or when you got teased,” I say, tracking her face, her eyes and body language. There it is, a look flashes across her eyes, she gulps and looks down, “I don’t know, maybe, I might have cried, I don’t remember.”

In my heart, I don’t want her to be alone in this sadness and pain, this isolation.  Meanwhile, Sandy seems lost in the cycle that they were in when they started the session.  But Sandy is not interrupting, she looks like she can tolerate the focus on Cindy.”  I check in briefly with her with this quick pat down, “Sandy, these tears seem new from Cindy.  I want it to be safe for her to cry here, to not be alone with those tears. Is it o.k. if I keep talking to her for now?”  Sandy nods her head and says, “Yes, I guess so, sure.”

“Cindy, I see the tears coming back and I know you want to fight them.  And that’s o.k., you can fight them back.  I just want to know what’s happening right now.  As we talk about reaching to your mom, bravely, 6 or 7 years old and hearing geek.”  Cindy does not emote much in response, so I go back to the first trigger, “and feeling alone, alone when you and Sandy get caught in the dance you said, right?”  And Cindy’s eyes well up again with tears, BINGO, an EFT hit, repeating the first trigger accesses the tears again.  She’s in Step 3.

“Alone, alone when you are in this dance with Sandy, yes,” and I look and Sandy’s face has changed some.  She seems at least curious about all this.  Maybe she has never seen Cindy as being alone too in the relationship.  “No hurry, linger,” says my Jiminy Cricket, my inner Sue J. guide in my head.

So, Cindy and I explore her tears for what seems like a long time, but it was only about 5 minutes.  5 minutes longer than Cindy’s spent with anyone while tearful since she was a child (by her own report the next session). We linger, she and I, while Sandy gets to observe and take in what her own fears and the cycle between them allows. After lingering, Cindy says, “I feel it.  I want to shut down now.”

“Like in the dance when the fog comes and the explosions start?”  “Yes,” she says.  We tie this wanting to shut down, to get away from vulnerable emotions in to the dance.  A few minutes later, she’s able to tell Sandy, “I get lonely too and feel vulnerable too, but I don’t like it, so I shut down in our dance.”  Sandy’s able to take that in and with a prompt tells Cindy, “I like seeing you open up, it gives me hope.”

Cindy smiles. I am grateful for remembering to move closer to the client’s emotional distress, to stay, to persist and be present with what emerges.

There is no rush when someone gets to new vulnerable places. We go there with them in Stage One.  We recall the power of the negative cycle driven by fear and often shame to block bids for connection.  We slow down.  If the other partner is walled off, reactive, or distant, we know to provide the empathy and validation to the person sharing.

By leaning in and lingering, we foster vulnerability. We then watch their partner’s response to vulnerability in the room. We can titrate or slice thin any enactment we might invite.

 To lean in, to listen, empathize and try to attune to what a partner or couples shares, that opens doors and changes their dance with us.  To linger with what they find, to say “no” to our own exits, to say “no” to trying to fix it, or expecting the listening, observing partner to provide comfort, that creates space for new implicit experience to arise to the surface.

When I lean in and linger magic occurs as expanded emotions surface, however painful, poignant or difficult they may be to witness and hold.

The names and identifying information of any clients referenced in a Colorado Center article are changed unless the clients have given express written permission to share such information.  Examples may also be aggregates of different couple’s experiences but reflect actual clinical moments or processes in the therapy room to the best of the author’s ability.  These articles are intended for professionals learning Emotionally Focused Therapy.  

Copyright, 2014, Jim Thomas, LMFT, All Rights Reserved, Use with Permission Only