A thoughtful middle-aged fellow, whom I see in weekly psychotherapy, recently confided that he was planning a vacation with three of his college friends. He was very much looking forward to it at first, but as the travel date approached he seemed to develop some reservations. Ultimately, he confided to me that he felt quite a bit of anxiety, in addition to his pleasant anticipation. “I’ve known these guys since I was eighteen years old,” he said, but then added, “But on the other hand, they’ve known me since I was eighteen, too.”
I knew what he meant. Spending time with old friends can be wonderful, as you catch up on each other’s lives, laugh at private jokes you barely remembered, and gather new experiences together to cement the relationships further. But there’s a flip side to the comfort and connection that comes with people from an earlier phase of your life, as well. With these friends, you aren’t just recalling old nicknames or reliving favorite memories: you’re also, whether you know it or not, partially reverting to an older version of yourself.
In each of our relationships — with friends, families, and at work — we automatically construct and maintain a new version of ourselves that fits that relationship exactly, and each of these self-states is different from the next. Although we might see ourselves as behaving in the same way in every relationship, in reality we exist as a collection of traits, habits and preferences that express themselves differently with different people. For example, the same person who at home is rigid or demanding father might, in the presence of his boss, become anxious and uncertain. A young woman who’s extremely outgoing in the presence of her female friends may feel withheld or suppressed when she’s on a date. This is the truth about our personalities: they’re contextual.
Even more significantly, it’s not just a person’s behavior that would change, in each context: she’d also experience herself differently as well. In greatly dissimilar contexts, each of us feels, on the inside, like a different person. This is what my patient was anxious about: that the confidence he’d gained in his years of career experience might evaporate when he found himself being teased by his college friends, or called by an old nickname. Visiting with friends after a long time has passed can hold up a harsh mirror: a way of seeing oneself that one hasn’t had to reckon with in recent years. The comfortable identity you hold in daily life can be upended as you finds yourself speaking old lines and inhabiting an old role that has otherwise been outgrown.
In psychotherapy, this phenomena is a significant one, but it gets put to use in a new, constructive way. When you describe your history to your therapist for the first time, you are, in essence, creating a new version of yourself. Your therapist has no context in which to put you, so it’s your job to create that context out of whole cloth. You’re emphasizing what seems to be important, telling your story by emphasizing some events and skipping over others. The story you tell this way — the self you create — depends on who you are now, not on the person you used to be, or the one you’re afraid you might be. It’s partly a result of unconscious choices that you make in the moment, and is shaped to some degree by your therapist’s persona, as well as the questions that he or she asks, but predominantly it’s a recreation of yourself from the ground up.
As therapy continues and you develop a good working relationship with your therapist, that story begins to change. You’re not bound by old fears, or old patterns of relating — partly because your therapist should be skilled enough to recognize the way those patterns have held you back, and will be looking for ways to reflect the new, better version of yourself. Over time, you’ll likely learn about who you are in relation to your therapist, as well. Shy people might gradually be able to feel comfort and confidence in the presence of their therapists, and angry ones might experiment with showing vulnerability. A new relationship, with a fresh context, offers the opportunity for self-discovery.
The therapeutic relationship, to be clear, is the only one in which the connection between two people can become a useful tool in accomplishing the goal those two people are working toward. Also, the dynamic you create with your therapist can be examined in vivo to see if it is helping you advance toward your goals. To people who say they don’t like initiating therapy with a new psychologist because they don’t want to “start over,” I like to say that they're not really starting over. “You never step into the same river twice,” I say, quoting a Greek philosopher who pointed out that the entire universe is in constant change. Tell your story today, from the point of view you have right now, and it’ll be a different story than any you’ve ever told before.
While your therapist will never take the place of the people who have known you since you were eighteen, he or she might be able to get to know you in ways your college friends never could… and, more importantly, you might be able to get to know yourself in new ways, as well.