I saw a therapist for ten years. I spent a few years with him as an adolescent and then seven years as an adult. When I was an adult, I saw him multiple times per week. Understandably, he was a huge part of my life. He is a part of who I am. If I have a voice that soothes me, it is his I hear say, "It is okay. You will be okay."
I've seen this therapist a few times in the eight years since I was in therapy with him. I still live in the same town. He still practices here. Me being me, when I have seen him, I haven't said hello like a normal person. My face flushes and I skulk off around the corner.
Why such a reaction to a man who helped me so much? Well I feared he might not remember me. Or I was concerned I would be bothering him. Or what if he thought, "Oh no, it's that annoying Mandy girl I finally scraped off my shoe eight years ago."
So much of therapy was about confronting my ego. I found a lot of overlap between the study of Buddhism and the experience of therapy. Like a classic neurotic, I had problems dealing with both my low self esteem and my enormous ego. I laugh to write that, but it's true. I didn't know I had such a big ego until I was years into therapy.
I recall fretting about someone being mad at me. I recall worrying about whether I'd said or done something to make my friend mad. I explored every word, gesture and deed I had done that could have caused this friend to be upset. My therapist pointed out that I was not the center of my friend's world. My friend had lots of other people in her life, lots of things going on and if she was upset, most likely it had absolutely nothing to do with me.
This was a revelation. An embarrassing one. No one wants to be a narcissist. But also: What a relief! This was one of many times that I was confronted with my enormous ego. An ego that thought everything bad in the world was my fault. An ego that thought I was so powerful I could destroy people. This ego had me believe that it was something I had done that caused my father to leave our home. My ego that had driven my mother to drink. My ego who caused my ex-husband to descend into schizophrenia. Me. Me. Me. All my fault!
How powerful. Almost god-like, no?
It had never occurred to me that all of this self-centered thought was just that: Self-centered. I was trapped in the mind of a child. I was at the center of the universe, not unlike a toddler in a tantrum. I was both all powerful and all blame-worthy. Thank god I had found a therapist to open my eyes. To show me that all of these people I cared about had their own lives and their own dramas which most likely had nothing to do with me.
I was suddenly free.
When Buddhists talk about the concept of No-Self or Anatta, I think it scares people. I mean, sure we're all attached to the concept of "Self." I like me! I am someone! I matter! There's no other Me quite like Me! People need me. People will be sad when I die. My life is not meaningless, dammit.
Yes, yes, yes. Yes to all of that. But we forget the pain that comes with such an ego. The ego can be bruised and harmed. Our feelings can get hurt when we think we are taken advantage of, ignored, disrespected, unloved. Our attachment to our specialness can cause pain — to both ourselves and others. It can cause us to be selfish and thoughtless.
The idea of No Self is not an idea to isolate us. It is to remind us that we are a part of the whole. The misperception that we are all completely and entirely separate beings is a farce. We are all interconnected as parts of nature, parts of the earth, parts of energy and matter. We are interconnected in our relationships with each other. We affect one another. No man is an island and all that jazz.
So No-Self is not meant to leave you in a cold hard world, sitting alone.
I know it sounds contradictory to both realize that the ego is an illusion and that our interconnectedness is reality. It's something I come up against and battle every time I sit for mediation. I came up against it when I saw my old therapist again this weekend.
Normally I would have just blushed and ignored him. But my husband encouraged me to go up and say hello. You know, like a normal person. He said it would show how much I've grown. That made me laugh. It's so against my personality to go up to someone and say hello in public. I assume I'm interrupting them or bothering them in some way. My husband said it might make my therapist feel good to see me again, to have me say hello, and to say thank you for his years of help.
He reminded me of how I feel when I hear from a former student. It feels good.
So I braced myself and approached this man. I shook his hand and introduced myself, just in case he didn't remember me. My ego didn't really think that was possible because I spent ten years with him in intense psychotherapy. My rational mind made me realize that he's had hundreds or thousands of patients over his 40-year career. He might not remember me or he might need his memory jogged after not seeing me for many years.
So I introduced myself and said hello. He looked pleased and smiled. We chatted briefly and I thanked him for his help. I told him that I still hear his voice in my head, a voice that tells me that it's going to be okay.
He said that meant that I had internalized the therapy. He also said that the effects of therapy can go on for many years after therapy has ended. People continue to get better and improve long after the sessions are over.
I agreed whole-heartedly.
It was a nice chat. He seemed pleased to know that he helped me. I felt like a stronger, more confident person who I had walked up to him and said hello. It was all good, right?
My ego was most certainly bruised in the process. It was clear to me the entire time that the man did not remember me. I have read that as Buddhists we should rejoice when our ego is bruised, just as we would rejoice if our enemy were to receive a blow. The ego needs these beatings. We need to be reminded that the fantasy is there. The illusion of our specialness is always at work. Insinuating itself into our psyche. Making us defensive and protective. Our brains are always at work, trying to repair and prop up the false sense of self.
We spend so much time propping up our specialness, our deluded ideas about ourselves, that we lose sight of others. We lose sight of the whole of which we are a part. What does it matter if this man remembers me, Mandy? This individual? What does it matter when he has helped thousands and I am but one?
I have been helped.
Because of that help, hopefully I am kinder and more compassionate towards others. Hopefully I have been made aware of the battle of the ego we all experience. This way of thinking allows me to give friends and family more leeway to deal with their own lives. I don't fret and bother them with my insecurities. They don't get calls, "Are you mad at me? Did I do something? Can you give me reassurances and prop up my delicate ego, please?"
No, I let them live their lives. Lives I assume are complicated and rich. Lives of which I am a minor part. The bruised ego causes so much drama in our lives. The bruised ego causes us to lash out. To over-react. To protect. Defend. Fight. Cry. To demand attention.
No one is out to get us. Neither with their apathy nor with their antipathy.
Everyone is just living their lives, doing the best they can. The more we can get our egos out of the way, the more we can be present for others. The more we are aware of what is going on with other people rather than what is going on with our own head, the kinder we are.
It occurs to me that there is a bright side to my therapist not remembering me. It must mean I wasn't all that bad. I certainly did not see a light of recognition in his eyes that said, "OH MY GOD. THIS GIRL WAS A HOT MESS."
That makes me laugh.
See, this ego did need to be bruised. If it hadn't been, I wouldn't have been reminded of this.