I just met with a smart, funny, attractive graduate student who had a severely traumatic childhood. She came in looking obviously frazzled and announced that she had been crying continuously since she got a terrible haircut the previous day.
I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel the urge to reassure her. Especially because, in addition to all her other attributes, she is extremely likable but also always seems a bit vulnerable. Paternal feelings of wanting to protect her are often activated during our conversations.
But, I could also see that there was almost as much risk in reassuring her as there would be in agreeing that her hair was a mess.
On the one hand, I would be dismissing her feelings (you shouldn’t feel that way) and on the other hand, agreeing seemed as though it would be cruel (her haircut didn’t look that bad to me… but what do I know?).
So I said nothing.
She went on to say, “I try so hard to look good, I spend hours on my grooming….” And then she added, “I get a lot of criticism.”.. and then talked about negative comments made by her ex-boyfriend, her mother, her sister… in other words, people who were part of her past, but are not in contact with her now.
By now I had formed a hypothesis that the reason I couldn’t find a way to respond was that she was actually having a kind of internal argument (different parts of herself were replaying a discussion that has gone on ever since her terrible childhood).
Her internal mother was saying, You are a real mess, how could anyone want to spend time with you, look at yourself… while her internal adult was saying, What do you mean? There are many things about me that are attractive, even if I do have a bad haircut…
And as sometimes happens in those ongoing arguments, if I had stepped in the two of them might have turned on me.