My Therapist Says

My Therapist Says Feelings Aren’t Facts

‘I feel angry, I am not anger. I feel afraid. I am not my fear either.’

May 11 · 7 min read
Illustration: Hoi Chan

When a family emergency rocked my family last year, my husband and I found ourselves in the blessed but lonely position of being The Only Ones Who Could Help. After we had a conversation about how much money we needed, how much we had available, and how much was on the way, we wrote out a list of what we needed to do.

Our discussion had gone well, and we agreed it would be necessary to cut back on a few things if we wanted to help our family, and maintain some sense of financial stability in our own home. We made a list of bills, using thick-tipped pens to cross out the ones we would work to eliminate or reduce over the next month. I crossed my fingers, and hoped we would stick to our plan, but I had my doubts. Neither of us was particularly good at delayed gratification on our own, but we learned over the years, if we did it for each other, or together for someone else, we could get it done.

Whenever my husband and I need to make a major shift in the way we live, which will happen for various reasons from time to time, we struggle to do so individually. I might miss a necessary doctor’s appointment until my husband says, “I’m worried. Please, go for me.” When my husband had trouble expressing his anger, we lost days to dark moods. When he drug his feet around finding a therapist, I found one for him. I told him, “Go for me.” He made the appointment. It helped.

We make emergency what-if plans together because that’s what works best, but I often make my own plan too: a mental list of all the things I am willing to give up that my husband, perhaps reasonably, would likely balk at if I spoke them out loud. Sometimes in the past I really gave them up — canceling a class I’d wanted to take for months, or deciding my pain wasn’t bad enough to see someone who could help. I just didn’t tell him.

Talking about finances never failed to make me hungry, so while he made us a post-money-talk breakfast, I slipped into the bedroom and shut the door behind me. I sat on the corner of the bed furthest from the door and texted my therapist. It had taken until my thirties for me to realize that other people might care about what I was doing, and so I learned to communicate as early as possible when I needed to change plans.

Before then, any time I canceled on a hangout, gathering, or any other interaction, I really believed the other party mostly felt relief not to have to be near me. In my bones, I felt every person who befriended me had done so out of an abundance of patience and goodwill. Years after almost losing a close friendship to this toxic belief in my inherent inadequacy, I was still learning how to communicate consistently without feeling put-upon or as if disappointing someone I cared for would kill me. I was not perfect, but I was a lot better at it now. It was easiest if I rehearsed what I needed to say beforehand, so I took a moment, using the hand that wasn’t holding my phone to grip the edge of my comforter, and tucked my cold fingers between the folds I created there. I let a script run through my head before typing it out:

Hi Peter. I have money coming, but it’s not here yet, and so I won’t be able to meet with you Monday. I really want to come back when I can afford it again. This isn’t an excuse not to come back. I’m sorry for any inconvenience this causes.

I’d started going to therapy again during a lingering bout of depression that kept me from writing. I’d been doing every other chore a person could do instead, even organizing my closets. Like a lot of people who grew up with not quite enough, I kept too many things. As we rifled through a lifetime of coats, my husband mentioned that we should give some of them away to make more room. The comment was innocent, constructive even, but what I heard was You have too many things. Look what you’ve done to our home with all of your STUFF. I grabbed a black peacoat with a purple satin lining, and held it up like an offering, “We could get rid of this one.” My husband stared at the coat, then me. “Ash, isn’t that the coat your grandma got you before she died?” It was. I wasn’t a child who got new things very often, but my grandmother had been buying me a new winter coat ever since middle school, and before she passed away, she bought me this one. I never wore it, was scared to wear it lest I pop a button or rip the lining. I’d been protecting it for years after her death. Still, as soon as he mentioned making room, and I felt the enduring and overwhelming guilt of taking up any space at all, I didn’t just want to give away my precious coat, I wanted to punish myself for the transgression. If WE needed more room, I would make more room for US. My husband took the hanging coat from my hand, and put it back in the closet. “Baby, why do you rush to give up what means the most to you?”

Four days later, I called Peter for the first time.

One week later, I was canceling our second appointment. I liked his style of therapy a lot, but I didn’t want to waste his time. I didn’t know how much money my family members would ultimately need from us, and though my husband would have never asked me to give up therapy, I’d run the numbers in my head and realized how much it would save us if I did. It had taken no time at all to convince myself that because he’d been seeing his therapist for longer than I’d been seeing mine, he deserved to be able to stick with an already established practice. What did I deserve? I didn’t know. That wasn’t the kind of thing I thought about much.

I hit send on the text, and assumed I’d get a response from Peter asking me to reach out again when I was ready to come back. Instead, he called me. I picked up. He asked me if it was a good time to talk, and I said, sure. He caught me off guard. He was not the first therapist I had canceled on, or even disappeared on, and I was not proud of that fact, but he was the first who called.

He said he just wanted to know if I was okay, and I said that I was. Then I told him about what had happened in my family. How there had been a shooting over the stupidest reason imaginable. How I’d had to physically relocate four members of my family, and all their belongings, within a week. How much I was afraid for them. How no matter how much I helped, it never felt like enough, and I was sure it never would. I’d grown up being taught not to ask for anything for myself, and had leaned into giving whatever I could, even as I consistently had little to give. I had learned that the greatest gift I could offer to the world was to be as small, helpful, and invisible as I could possibly be.

I started to cry. I told him, “I feel like it’s my job to take care of us all, and I feel like I’m failing at my job.”

Peter was silent for a moment, and I felt hot embarrassment at the sound of my gasps and sobs echoing back at me from the phone line. “Ashley,” he started, “Do you know that feelings aren’t facts?” For a moment, I was more curious than ashamed. I asked what he meant. “Feelings are powerful,” he said. “Feelings give us information, and they can move us to action, but no matter how powerful they are, they’re not facts. You can feel like the worst person in the world. You can feel like taking care of everybody else is the best you can do. You can feel like you’re not worth anything. You can even feel like you’re a human failure, and as powerful as that feeling is, it doesn’t make it true.” And then, I could breathe.

A simple concept, and it hit me like a speeding truck. My feelings are trying to tell me something about me, and even when they are overwhelming, they can’t replace who I am. I feel angry, I am not anger. I feel afraid. I am not my fear either. My anger doesn’t mean I’m right, and my fear doesn’t mean I’m in danger. All this time, I thought feeling bad made me bad.

Peter told me to come to my next session, as planned, and not to worry about the money until I had it. “You don’t always have to be the one to give something up,” he told me. “Sacrifice is giving up the sacred. It is not your job to be the first to fall on the sword. Even when it feels that way.”

That night, I told my husband about trying to cancel the appointment, and the way Peter had convinced me to keep it. My husband pulled me closer and said, “I would have made you go.” And I would have for him. But this way was better. It would always be better, when I did it for me.

Elemental

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