Wanting to be bothered
There is a scene in Woody Allen's film, Hannah and her Sisters, in which Hannah (Mia Farrow) is talking to her sister Holly (Dianne Wiest) about Hannah's reluctance to talk about her problems.
'I don't want to bother everyone,' she says.
Holly replies, 'That's the point. I want to be bothered.'
There are clients who genuinely have no family or friends in whom they can confide, but there are several whose distress has been exacerbated by reluctance to talk to those close to them. Here are some of the reasons for this:
1. Protectiveness - My partner/children/friends have their own lives. I don't want them to worry about me when they could be focusing on more important things.
2. Self-image - I am a strong parent/trusted partner/reliable friend. If they find out I feel this way about my life they will think less of me.
3. Reluctance to face the situation - If I don't talk about the problem to anyone I can pretend it doesn't exist.
4. Reluctance to hear another viewpoint - If I tell people they might give me unwanted advice, or worse, tell me things about myself and my life I would rather not hear.
Here are two examples - Names and other identifying details have been changed:
John is 35, married with two small children. He works in IT and his wife, Sarah, is currently on maternity leave from her teaching job.
Recently, a new management structure has been put in place at John's workplace. A culture of bullying has arisen. A few employees have been sacked, and John's new manager, whom he dislikes, often talks about the need for 'trimming the fat' and 'paying our way'. The manager has a volatile temper and frequently shouts at staff members in front of others.
Since these changes at work, which coincided with the birth of John's second child, John has suffered high levels of anxiety. He sleeps badly and has found himself close to tears on more than one occasion.
John has not sought help from his GP. The surgery does not offer appointments outside his working/commuting hours and he fears if he takes time off it will count against him. Neither has he confided in Sarah. She is at home all day with a baby and a toddler, and has her own anxieties as she does not really want to return to work while the children are so young, but the couple have a large mortgage which cannot be met by John's salary alone.
John's counsellor asked him to explore his feelings behind his fear of confiding in Sarah. It emerged that he has always had a feeling of inadequacy in his marriage. Sarah's parents, although polite to him on the surface, somehow convey that they think he is not good enough for their daughter. If he loses his job this will confirm their opinion. The counsellor pointed out that, if he loses his job and doesn't tell Sarah what is going on at work, that might do more to confirm her parents' opinion than if he is honest about his difficulties.
In the end John told Sarah about his work situation. She was upset, but supportive, and together they drew up a contingency plan for managing financially if he lost his job. Their financial position, though difficult, would not be as serious as he had imagined in his state of anxiety. She also encouraged him to look for another one, and by the time he ended his counselling he had been shortlisted for a good job, and was under consideration for two more. He also reported feeling less intimidated by his boss and learnt to see his aggressiveness as a sign of his own insecurity.
Marie is a widow in her late 60s. Her husband died suddenly six months ago. He had always been in charge of the family finances, but after his death she found he had gambled away nearly all their savings. She is living on the State pension, plus a tiny occupational pension from a job she held for a few years before her retirement. The large house in which she has lived for most of her married life will have to be sold and she will have to move into a small flat, a prospect which leaves her almost paralysed with lethargy.
Marie has three grown up children, all of whom have young families and busy careers. Marie has not told them about her financial situation. They adored their father, and it would break their hearts to realise he was not the man they thought he was. Also, she feels a sense of guilt by association. If she, who was closer to him than anyone, had no idea of his gambling problem and therefore could do nothing to help him, surely that reflects badly on her as a wife?
She is in a state of shock about her situation, having discovered she was married for forty years to a man she never really knew. Marie's counsellor asked her how she felt towards her husband now. She described, along with her feelings of loss and shock, a deep resentment towards him. She had given up her own career to raise a family, and while she thought that was the right thing to do at the time, she had come to realise that she had also given up all her autonomy. Her husband's interests always came first, to the extent that she was unable to have any social life of her own. She had no friends who were not also her husband's friends, and most of those had drifted away after his death.
In the end, Marie decided to tell her children, mainly because she hated the thought of their being traumatised after her death with a muddled financial situation. Inevitably, they were angry with their father for his irresponsibility and, while not angry with her, they were puzzled as to how she could not have known the true situation. After many family conferences, the children accepted the way things were and helped Marie with the sale of the house and the purchase of a flat.
At her final counselling session, Marie described how confiding in her children left her feeling a great weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She still feels overwhelmed by all the work involved in downsizing her home, but is confident she can help, and that there is no shame in asking for help.
John and Marie both found their loved ones were glad they had confided in them, and were happy to help. Both said that if they had not had counselling, they might not have done so. As counsellors, we 'want to be bothered' and can help our clients realise they may have other people in their lives who want to be bothered too.