“I almost called yesterday to see if you could squeeze me in,” Michelle (pseudonym) said, as she settled herself on the office couch. “I think I had a PTSD episode when the divorce lawyer called to have me come in to close the case and tie up any loose ends.” She continued to lean forward as she looked directly at me, describing the heart-pounding panic she felt at the thought that her former husband, who has been living 2,000 miles away for nearly a year, might be threatening again to take her to court for custody of their son. The lawyer quickly talked her down, reminding her that that could never happen given her son’s age, how well he is doing in all areas of his life, and that he prefers to have very little contact with his father.
Michelle acknowledged that she knows that, but when the panic flooded her, her brain “went offline,” as I often put it when emotions hyjack our ability to think clearly. As we explored the thoughts behind the anxiety she felt, she was reminded of how she felt throughout the marriage. They had been together since she was 15 years old, and she expressed such disbelief that she could have allowed Gary (pseudonym) to have such control over her. As she related some of the events before they even married, she was astounded at what she never questioned and repeatedly tolerated. “How can I trust myself to choose the right person for me now?” She wondered.
Michelle related how the lawyer had warned her to be on guard because given her beauty, success, and wealth, she would be a target for men who would simply use her. “But I don’t see myself that way!” She exclaimed. “And that makes you all the more attractive,” I replied.
Michelle needed to know how to trust herself not to repeat the history that still flooded her with anxiety. “Tell me what you know now and what’s different about who you are now than when you were the 15-year-old dating Gary.” Her body visibly relaxed, as she settled back into the couch and told me all the ways in which she’s “grown up” and feels so solid in herself. We talked about the red flags that she could now readily name, but which her younger self, so enamored by Gary’s good looks and self-assuredness, blinded her to.
“It’s not so much about who you can trust,” I said, “but about being able to trust yourself to pick up on the warning signs that you missed before. It’s about honoring your emotional experience and not letting the desire to be wanted or to not upset someone else keep you from being clear about what is working for you.” She nodded, and expressed relief at not only letting the vestiges of panic that arose at the thought of Gary go, but also at knowing how self-aware and self-supporting she’s become. Michelle is determined not to get “trapped in the mirror” of another man’s narcissism, realizing how easily that happened when she, as a young teenager, allowed Gary’s arrogant certainty keep her from trusting her own feelings and perceptions. In other words, if you are lacking in self-assuredness and have been conditioned to please others, it’s easy to give yourself over to someone who seems so sure that he/she is right. I realized in retrospect that I did that in my first marriage. As is often the case, learning from my own experience has been one of my best teachings.