Board games

Therapy hurts. It hurts and hurts and it hurts some more. Two and a half days since my session and still I’m in pain.

I worry that this is bad therapy. This is exacerbated by a book I’m reading, a memoir written by a psychologist about her placements during training. It’s not a bad book, but her type of treatment does not involve having the patients suffer. The author is empathetic and listens to her patients’ stories….but any good she does happens pretty much right away, it’s obvious, and it doesn’t involve anyone going off for a week to feel worse than ever.

My therapy is not like that. At all. Nothing is obvious, everything moves by inches, if at all. It’s like a mess of stew where you can’t really tell what all the ingredients are, as opposed to a nice steak and baked potato.

The psychologist/author provides insights, but those insights do not seem to cause pain to her patients. Most books seem to skip over this part. Insight causes pain. Or at least, emotional insight does. It’s why people generally don’t wish to change, despite the level of suffering that’s brought them to a therapist. The pain of feeling this stuff is just too great.

As usual, we cover a bunch of stuff. Ron waits silently for me to begin. I cast around, usually say something about the traffic or the weather. He responds minimally and continues to wait silently. Sometimes I wish he would launch into some therapeutic topic, but no, he just waits.

I’ve been struggling with my job search, so I talk about that a bit. I tend to shut down when I’m trying to force myself to apply to things, which makes looking for work tricky. I shut down, then can’t remain upright, so I lie down and actually sleep. Which makes me more depressed, so then I spend the rest of the day trying to feel better.

At the same time, I have been doing activities again after the Christmas break. I tell Ron about three activities I went to, which I rated good, OK, and pretty bad.

The good was a choir I think I’ll join. It’s an unauditioned choir. They sing without written music, instead they learn songs from recordings. I’ve struggled with a choir in the past, but was amazed at how I was able to sing with this one without the stress and anxiety I’d had previously. I think it’s partly that it’s a very low key choir where the emphasis is on fun and enthusiasm rather than skill. But also, I really seem to have changed. I could still hear some of my anxious thoughts, but they didn’t take me over, so I was also able to enjoy singing out without worrying too much. The women around me were super nice, ensuring I got copies of the lyrics and chatting a bit. A good experience.

I was trying to tell Ron how I really could see I’d made progress, with about a decade between today and the last time I’d tried to be part of a choir. That gap really let me see a difference. Not sure he really got it, but to me it was a great sign that I have changed.

The OK was a book club I’d been meaning to attend for ages. I didn’t love it – not everyone got a chance to talk, and you kind of had to seize the spotlight if you wanted to give your opinion on the book. I did speak for a minute or two – I hadn’t liked the book much actually. Tried to come up with the reasons. I had reasons, but a big one was that it just didn’t grab me, which isn’t a great reasoned argument. So I felt awkward, but at the same time, I felt it was OK for me to sit there and listen, even if I didn’t feel part of it in quite the way I’d have liked. I wasn’t overcome with anxiety about what everyone else thought of me, and this too is progress for me.

And the bad. The bad led to some discussion of what my family is like, which is what seems to have set me off into this depressed bad time. Or maybe it’s mourning. Whatever.

The bad was a games afternoon at the pub. It’s a meetup group that plays boardgames, which sounds like a nice, low key endeavour, but isn’t. I had been to it before though, but this time the triggery parts of it just took over. It’s a large group, maybe forty people. We break up into smaller groups to play various games. The majority of participants are young men, tending to the nerdy socially awkward side. There were maybe two or three other women there, and I think I was the oldest person overall.

The people there seemed to be experts. Most new a great number of games already, or could relate the games to others they’d played, unlike myself. They were nice enough about teaching me the rules though. However, the rules were complex, and also the games needed a fair bit of skill – logic, or probability, or strategy. I became very anxious that I couldn’t remember all the rules, and then, that I would play badly. Which I did. It’s hard to be learning complex sets of rules for two hours, plus play with any degree of skill. And my fellow players were looking to be challenged. They took the games pretty seriously – they certainly weren’t an excuse to drink beer and chat.

So I got anxiety. I think I was likely switching a bit to kid space, and I know my voice got quite childish at times. The leader of the meetup actually came by our table a couple of times with a worried look asking how it was going, and later, I suspected he was worried about me perhaps. Who knows.

Anyhow. Nothing much happened. I left after two hours (they mostly stay for many hours apparently), feeling anxious and depressed. I felt like I hadn’t kept any kind of dignity and had been hijacked by really hurting young parts.

I try to explain to Ron. It’s as if I feel overwhelmingly stupid and incompetent. I am so afraid, when I hear the instructions, that I won’t understand, that it’s a self fulfilling prophecy.

This is an issue I also have had in my jobs, when I’ve been working. Young techie guys will explain what they do in their jobs, and I have to get it down as a procedure. It is massively stressful for me, because I’m afraid I won’t understand and they’ll look down on me. Which happens sometimes. I struggle to take in what they’re telling me.

We start talking about my family when I was growing up. I start to feel like I’m going to go to sleep, in my usual shut down mode. It’s as if I see them down at the end of a long tunnel. Ron wants me to describe specific things I remember related to feeling stupid. But I can’t remember specifics. There was a huge emphasis on academic achievement. Do I remember report cards? Not really – my parents never said much, neither praise nor blame really. I try to remember. I can’t. I remember it felt like a kind of a fog. There were no such things as feelings, and things felt a bit unreal to me I suppose.

Later, trying to think, I just have a sense that my family didn’t seem to care about me. Any problems I had were my own fault, so were therefore shameful, and so couldn’t be mentioned.

It was just a very strange atmosphere. I suppose I was a kind of scapegoat. I fought the hardest, and had to be made an example of. But it’s hard to grasp how I was made an example. I suppose never praised, while my sibling sometimes were. Generally considered inferior.

Anyhow. One of my difficulties is trying to pin down what went on. It’s very hard for me to get a grasp on what it was. Whatever it was, it made me feel ghostlike and inhuman. And confused.

So, since the session, I’ve felt bad. I just hope this is going to help me somehow, because to fall into a depression like this when I’m doing my best to climb out is discouraging.


  1. This.shaking said:

    Reaching a hand out to you, Ellen.
    (BTW, a therapist – none of whose patients suffer – hmmm)
    Whatever it was your family did, or did not do, they hurt you, and just as bad, confused the heck out of you. Sounds like they took your power…. let’s go grab it back! Reaching out with both arms – TS

  2. I’m with TS about the therapist author. All sounds a bit Pollyanna-ish to me. Maybe she’s trying to drum up business, like those pain-free dentists…

    Funny you should write this today:

    “One of my difficulties is trying to pin down what went on. It’s very hard for me to get a grasp on what it was. Whatever it was, it made me feel ghostlike and inhuman. And confused.”

    It’s what I’ve been mulling over, most of the day, this sense of really not knowing what was done to me that left me so reactive and messed up. I’m trying to focus less on the ‘thing’ and more on the feelings it’s left me with. I think if we can accept and believe the feelings we’re left with. the what happened is not so big or in need of solving any more. Or something like that. Sometimes I think I need to know the ‘what’ to justify having the feelings. Like, I can make them go away by declaring them not real. Like monsters under the bed or something.

    Sorry it’s been such a hard week 😦

    • Ellen said:

      That’s a really good and valid idea – focusing on the feelings instead of on what happened in the past. The first task though is connecting the present feelings to the past. Sometimes it feels right to do that. Other times, I waver. There’s lots in the present to feel bad about too – how do I know what I’m feeling bad about? But yes, the feelings are the feelings and they’re definitely real.

      Thank you

  3. Ps, I don’t think that it hurting, in and of itself, makes it bad therapy. We’re in for the root canals and cut-half-your-jaw-away procedures. Sounds like the author does the shallow-filling stuff.

    • Ellen said:

      Yeah, I agree. The author is actually not that bad – interesting actually. She writes about very extreme situations, where for instance a patient in in a psych facility in a crisis. It’s not really comparable to the steady drip drip drip of weekly therapy for someone who is more or less functioning. I’m just getting triggered and worried by everything at the moment. Thx

  4. DV said:

    That’s lovely about the choir. I hope you continue with that and get some enjoyment and closeness to other people out of it. I’m totally with you on the board game thing, I think you get good by building on previous skills over a long period of time and those skills plus the general mindset do tend to transfer between games so if you are trying to play against people who have been doing it longer and therefore can pick up new things quickly you just can’t compete and it’s demoralising and horrible. I don’t have the right kind of strategising ability myself and despite all my skills in other areas trying to play most board games makes me look and feel incompetent and stupid.

    Over and above that, what you’re describing with the gaming group and with your family sounds very much like the results of feeling excluded. The thing about exclusion is that it can be so very subtle and hard to pin down. The other people don’t have to “do” or “say” anything to you – it’s more about what they don’t do or say – and that makes it very hard to remember specific examples and also very easily deniable by people who use this technique to intimidate or bully. Little things like people talking to or about everyone except you, sharing anecdotes or in-jokes that you aren’t/weren’t part of, turning slightly away, not making eye contact, forgetting details about you that you’ve previously told them – all contribute to maing you feel invisible and “less than” (which is perhaps similar to the feeling of being ghostlike and inhuman which you describe). It’s something I became very aware of when I was bullied as an adult and so it was a little easier to see what they were doing and the pattern in it, but I think that if it happens as a child you might not notice these things at all because you have no point of comparison, and all there is to point to is how it makes you feel. And how it makes you feel is TERRIBLE. The pain of exclusion is one of the worst types of pain there is. The brain is hardwired to feel it using the same pathways as physical pain. It is one of the reasons why shunning is so devastating and effective as a punishment by communities. (I have some interesting articles on this topic if you are interested.)

    This is not just you or something wrong with you. It is something that is being done TO you, possibly unintentionally, but possibly also deliberately. It would be easy for me to criticise Ron for not picking up on or explaining any of this to you, but to be honest Dr L didn’t really do that for me in the comparable situation either, and most of what I learned about this came from my own exploration and reading. It’s very frustrating.

    • DV said:

      The articles I mentioned are linked on the “articles” resource page on my blog under the subheading “Bullying, social exclusion, narcissism and emotional abuse”.

        • Ellen said:

          Thanks for all of this DV. I will check out those articles.

          What you say about bullying does relate very much to my experience in my family. My father added actual shunning to the agenda when I was a teen, when he stopped speaking to me for a few years. I suspect the whole scenario is so painful to me I can’t really look at it for any length of time.

          I hadn’t broken down the components of bullying like you do above – it’s really interesting. It does apply to my family, and not to the board games. There, I wasn’t bullied, I was triggered and was anxious. No one did anything to me with bad intent. But my family – they intended and intend what they do. I know they’re caught up in a weird system, but they still did it. Very hard to come to terms with.

          • DV said:

            I guess if you are still being subjected to that sort of behaviour in your family, the feeling of “not being quite part of the group” that you had at the gaming would be quite triggering even if it wasn’t intentional in any way.

            • Ellen said:

              Yes it’s triggering. That’s what I think a trigger is. A situation reminds you of something unresolved from the past, but the current situation is neutral. It doesn’t really matter what my family is currently doing. The problem with triggers is obviously they needlessly limit my life as I seek to avoid them. The solution as I see it is to face down the trigger so I can see it’s not the case that the present is threatening to me, so then the trigger is dismantled. The whole area is difficult. Cheers

  5. Keep going with the choir! It sounds fun! Hugs to you. This stuff is hard.

    • Ellen said:

      I am going to join the choir. Must build on what feels good. Thank you

  6. Grainne said:

    I know Ron is a decent therapist and I know the bond you’ve built is very important but I have never quite understood what his direction is with you. I know he goes with the flow and lets you bring up issues you want to discuss and it’s nice that he never seems to push you in any direction that you don’t want to go, but he also never seems to help you reach any conclusion that will help you in moving forward.

    Like DV said above me, exclusion, deliberate or accidental, is a terrible feeling, particularly for a child. It’s the things they didn’t do (and still don’t do) that makes your family so emotionally exhausting to be around. They made you feel like you don’t matter and little to no impact on their lives. It’s not like you haven’t figured this part out… it doesn’t make much sense to me that he would just try to show you those links back to your childhood and then, what? Move on? Sit back in his chair and wait for you to bring up the next topic? I wish that he would carry these things forward into the next session and help you expand upon them; chip away at the patterns those feelings created to help you see yourself in a new light where you could know you are good enough, important enough and deserve to be heard, accepted and respected in all facets of your life. It seems like such an obvious goal for a therapist to jump on to help you work through. It must feel, sometimes, like you’re doing your own therapy while you pay Ron to supervise.

    Love the part about the choir 🙂 I went to school for music and there’s something wonderful and cohesive about being a part of a group where everyone works together to create something beautiful; no one voice more important than the next…everyone equal and needed to complete the beauty of the sound. That feels so lovely to me. The other outings you went on were competitive and required each person to prove they were better, more skilled or intelligent than the others. Stick with the group that made you feel welcome and wanted. In the end, that might help you more than therapy ever could. xx

    • Ellen said:

      I’ve never quite understood what his direction is with me either. 😦 It does sometimes feel like I’m just paying Ron to supervise. lol. At least he’s not intrusive. To be fair, the family stuff came up at the end of the session, and then I was immediately overwhelmed by my feelings. But yeah, it would be helpful if he wanted to continue this in the next session. I can, but it”s my choice – he won’t propose any direction. I like your plan for my therapy actually. I know Ron does consider things, but it’s impossible to know really what his direction or goal is, or if there is one. I can ask him. If I do, he’ll start talking, and it will all get so complex I won’t remember much of anything after. I know I’ve asked him about goals previously and that’s what happened.

      I didn’t know you studied music! Choir is nice. The reason I was able to relax enough to enjoy this one though was a result of the therapy I’ve done. I’ve been in a choir years ago and it was not a good experience. I didn’t want to blend with others, and I was busy trying to batten down all of my feelings, which doesn’t make for good singing at all. I was a mess of anxiety and bad feelings. I could really see this time that I’ve changed quite a bit. Even though it’s hard to describe how I did that.

      I want to stick with the choir, but I may also return to the other groups. The games group made me anxious, but it’s a chance for me to work on triggers, try to face them down, in a setting where the stakes are very low. When the anxiety happens at work, the stakes are quite a bit higher.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      • Grainne said:

        I understand how great that must have felt to enjoy yourself in a choir that you wouldn’t have been able to years ago! That is a great self test to see how far you’ve come. :). I love that you want to go back to the other groups too. You’re stronger than I am…I was all for just doing what made you feel good and running from the rest. Looks like you’ve come very far indeed, my friend. 🙂

  7. I’m thinking in the same lines as defraggingme, to focus on the feelings and not what happened. I mean, I have certainly spent time in therapy with E telling her what happened. And it’s sometimes important to talk about it, especially if I think it’s excruciatingly shameful. Then by telling E, I learn that she doesn’t think I’m too disgusting to live, and I start to see that maybe it’s bearable.

    But as you know, I’ve also struggled a lot with “did this really happen like this or did I make it up.” It still comes up like that occasionally, but mostly not. E really has convinced me that no matter what exactly happened, I have been wounded. I am walking around with old, unhealed wounds that interfere with my current life. Given that I am not actually too disgusting to live, maybe in fact I am not actually worse that other human beings, and I deserve to heal. How can I heal? In very abbreviated form: only by having great compassion for myself. So a huge amount of therapy is about how do I truly have compassion with myself, all parts of myself? How do I have compassion for my anxiety and my shame and my self-doubt? What do I need to feel okay? How do I need to structure my life so that the wounds (which never fully go away) don’t become infected again?

    I don’t know how well Ron can help you explore those topics. I am sure he can listen without judgment, with great caring for you. And since he seems to be willing to go wherever it is you want to go in therapy, maybe he will do a good job going with you to the realm of your emotional wounds and learning to be kind to them. ???

    Like others, I can see how the board game scenario would trigger a ton of insecurities. Just reading about it, I felt my own chest tighten. There’s a place to start right there: can you feel a gentle compassion for the frightened young self who fears she isn’t wanted? How terrible it must be to feel like that, to wonder if she is worth less than the others! It doesn’t matter if there was no ill intent–she still wondered if she should even be there. What might help her feel her worth? Those are the kinds of questions that I am pursuing in therapy, and for me at least, it’s a direction that feels helpful.

    I’m wandering about with this comment a bit, sorry! But thinking of you, and interested, as always, in how you process challenging things (and kind of wishing your therapist gave you a little bit more active support, as caring as he is).

    • Ellen said:

      Thank you Q. Never apologize for your comments – they are so interesting and kind. 🙂

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