Spring had just started, and it was early evening when I got her email. She had been a patient of mine in psychotherapy, but it had been a while since I had heard from her. I opened her note to find one of the most aggressive messages I have ever received. In a nutshell: I was the worst therapist (and person) for not having responded to her most profound cry for help, i.e., an email that she had sent six months ago when she got stranded far from home during the pandemic.
My first reaction was panic. Had I really been so mindless and uncaring? I also saw how I was on the verge of rage. How could anyone treat me that way? I did not deserve it at all! Fortunately, I was able to open a gap between my feelings and my urge to react. I looked up the emails we had exchanged during the previous year. I found her cry for help, and to my great relief, I also found my immediate response, offering my full support in any way she needed, including a free session if she were unable to pay.
I remembered that it certainly struck me as odd that she never responded to my communication, and I sometimes wondered what had become of her. Nevertheless, I had decided not to impose or be pushy. Now, I had two options: Refute her email, point by point, and call it quits, or explain to her what had happened (including a copy of the response that she never saw) and offer my help again.
I chose the second one. Her answer was an immediate apology with a very self-aware reflection: “I can’t believe that, out of a technical glitch, I came up with a nonexistent narrative that has tormented me for months.” Upon receiving her message, I burst into calm tears of gratitude and then suggested we meet on zoom to talk about what had happened. She agreed, and we shared a space that was healing for both of us.
Upon contemplating everything that had happened, I remembered a time when my cat had some kind of emotional crisis and started to attack her own tail as if it were not part of herself, but rather an enemy to overcome. I realized that many times we do the same thing: Bite our own tails, inflicting great suffering on ourselves without realizing that we are the agent. That was what my former patient had done, and she had given me the opportunity to see it with utter clarity.
So, the next time you think you are the victim of someone else’s indifference or mistreatment, you can try the following:
1) Stop and look carefully at the storyline your own mind is coming up with as a reaction to an unpleasant situation.
2) Try to determine how much it is you biting your own tail and how much it is actually coming from the outside.
3) Own your own part in the interaction. Then open a space in your mind/heart to start letting go of your disturbed emotions and to allow compassion to manifest.
4) Repeat as needed.