Musings from the Psychotherapist’s Office: The Case of Mary Jean
Updated: Sep 14, 2020
Please note: This story is about a client who gave permission to have her story published. Through therapy, she got out of her problem and wanted to use her story for the sake of educating others similar to her in hopes that they could also break free from their painful patterns. Her name and identifying details have been changed to keep confidentiality.
As Mary Jean sat in my office chastising her employee, I listened intently. I don’t know if it was her energetic nature, or the dramatic stories that she served up each week in therapy, but whatever the case, she was captivating to listen to. The theme was always that someone was doing Mary Jean wrong. And it was unbelievable the crazy kinds of situations she found herself in. Even though she was a petite, pretty and polite young woman, her words and stories did not match her looks. Her red curly hair, penetrating green eyes and pint-sized stature sure could pack a punch. I would not have guessed it, but from the stories she tells, it turns out that she has slapped, punched, pushed, and even spit on people out of her anger. She has also slung abusive words, and objects hurling across the room at people. This firecracker sure did have a lot of fire in her. I have to admit, as her therapist, I was impressed by her boldness and strength. She was not afraid of anyone. This was unusual for the types of clients that I typically worked with, whom were riddled with anxiety, beaten down with broken hearts, afflicted by addiction, or dampened by depression. So, I must admit, Mary Jean was quite exciting to work with, at first.
But as the weeks turned into months and then years, Mary Jean’s dramatic stories began to be not so mesmerizing anymore. After some time, I could predict the plot. Mary Jean, the poor, innocent, angelic victim was being attacked by someone. Actually, not someone, everyone! In the few years that I had known her, Mary Jean had single-handedly burned everyone out of her life. Except for the people whom were forced to relate to her by circumstance because she was their boss or relative. But even they kept their distance. Our therapy session each week would go something like this: Mary Jean verbally vomiting the story of how so and so hurt her, rejected her, was mean to her, and how she somehow, some way, kicked them out. Yet she was the one feeling rejected and hurt. It was amazing how this storyline pervaded every day of her life. Mary Jean was a ruthless boss, yelling at her staff for innocent mistakes, pushing them to work harder when they were at their max, and firing people out of an irrational burst of anger, without any warning. Many people also quit because of her offensive behavior, but she did not have enough insight to realize this. Instead, when her staff would quit, she would blame them for their bad behavior. Mary Jean had her own business, so she didn’t have any boss to report to. Therefore, she got away with abusing people without being held responsible for her irresponsible behavior.
So, as you can see, I did not have an easy job of trying to help Mary Jean to see and take responsibility for her own reckless, and downright mean behaviors. Don’t get me wrong, it is hard to get any client to see themselves and take responsibility for their feelings, thoughts and behaviors. That is why they seek the guidance of a therapist. Most clients come to therapy blaming the other person - their husband, wife, friend, boss, parent, child, etc. Even me. Yes, clients like to blame the therapist as well. Anyone but themselves. Needless to say, it can take years to help the client see that their problem lies smack dab within themselves.
So, how did I do this with Mary Jean? How did I get her to see the reason why she was feeling so lonely, rejected, unloved and disconnected from people? I taught Mary Jean about empathy. There are different kinds of empathy. Emotional empathy is the kind in which you can feel the other person’s pain. For example, if I was feeling sick, which did occur a few times over the years that I knew Mary Jean, she would feel empathy for me. Mary Jean was actually quite good at the emotional empathy piece.
But the cognitive empathy part is where she fell short. And that was the root of her problem. Cognitive empathy is the type of empathy in which you are able to see how your behavior affects the other person. For example, in Mary Jean’s case, she would be able to see how her anger outbursts repel people, but she could not see this. She could only see the other people’s bad behavior, and how they deserved her anger. The difficult part about having cognitive empathy is that in order to have it, you cannot be emotional. You have to be calm, cool, and collected in your mind so you can see clearly how your behavior affects the other person.
As I tried to broach the subject with Mary Jean about how her behavior affected others, she immediately became defensive. I backed down and assumed my normal role of listener. The hour passed and the session ended as usual, with her asking me if she did a good job. As a person-centered therapist, of course, I always look for the positive in any client. With pleasure, I highlighted Mary Jean’s strengths, and as usual and she felt happy. But I realized that we were getting nowhere and I felt badly for not being able to help Mary Jean to see her problem. I decided to escalate Mary Jean’s case to an extra set of eyes - my supervisor. My supervisor gave me some interesting advice. She explained that most people are actually not able to see how their actions affect others, so that I should not feel frustrated. She advised that instead of me trying to get Mary Jean to see her problem, that I elicit the help of other people in her life to help Mary Jean to see her problem.
The next week in session with Mary Jean, I listened patiently to another one of her crazy stories, this time about her father, whom she loved dearly, and kind of obsessively. She controlled him down to the tiniest detail of his life, yet she did not see it this way. She described her behavior as, “love.” Anyway, her father had been the one person in her life whom did not leave her, despite all of the abuse she had put him through. I don’t think he had the heart to tell her. In session, Mary Jean was bashing her father for making a boundary with her and telling her no, when she kept pushing his limits to say yes. As she tore her father apart savagely, she stopped for a second and smiled at me, waiting for me to approve of her abuse. I have to admit, I was a bit in shock to hear her ruthlessly picking apart this lovely man’s character. You see, I had the advantage this time of meeting her father in family therapy sessions. In most cases with my clients, I do not know who they are talking about, so I have to just take their word for it when they describe another person’s character. But in this particular case, I had previously met Mary Jean’s father, and her description of him was completely off the mark. Her father was actually a kind, mild-mannered, loving, tolerant man. So, I knew for a fact that how she was describing him as some cold-hearted demon who was ignoring her for no good reason, was not accurate at all. I paused, realizing this was the moment that I could try to get through to Mary Jean using my supervisors’ advice.
“Okay, Mary Jean, I hear you. You seem very angry at your father right now. It must feel painful to feel so betrayed and rejected by your father,” I empathized.
“Yes, he is so stupid. He is just downright ignorant. He does not have any idea what is good for him! He won’t listen to me. I know what is best for him,” she said with an intense, rageful look in her sharp green eyes.
“I hear you, Mary Jean, it is very frustrating when your father does not listen to you, especially when you think you know what is best for him,” I said, trying to match her mood.
“I will still do what I want, but he won’t know it. I will play a trick on him. He is too innocent to catch my trick. That is what happens if he does not listen to me,” Mary Jean smiled, proud of her clever wit.
“What will you do, Mary Jean?” I asked, half not wanting to know what crazy thing she had conjured up.
“I will sneak the medicine into his drink and disguise it so he won’t even taste it when he is drinking it,” she said, giggling about her plan to trick her unsuspecting father.
“How do you think that would make your father feel if he knew that you thought he was stupid, could not take care of himself, and that you were going to trick him into taking medicine?” I asked.
“I don’t care! He is stupid!” she yelled.
“Okay, well, Mary Jean, remember the last time your father stopped talking to you and how sad you felt? I remember that you felt devastated when your father cut off contact with you because you spent his money behind his back. This is kind of like the same idea,” I explained, trying to help her gain insight into the consequences of her actions.
“No, it is not! He needs to take his medicine!” she stubbornly barked back.
“Okay, Mary Jean, what is the medicine?” I said, not giving in this time to her antics.
“It is a medicine that will make him have a strong immune system. He needs this as he is getting older now and I don’t want him to fall sick,” she said, in a surprisingly calm voice.
“Why don’t you just discuss it with your father instead of calling him stupid and trying to trick him?” I continued.
“Because I already tried that and he said no,” Mary Jean quipped.
I kept on, “How did it make you feel, Mary Jean, when your father said no?”
Mary Jean pursed her lips, and crunched her tiny little hand into a fist. She stood up, punching her fist into the air and screamed, “Angry!!”
Not backing down, I continued, “And what did you do when you became angry at your father, Mary Jean?”
“I yelled at him, trying to convince him of how stupid he is,” she revealed.
“And how did your father respond?”
“He became silent and stopped talking to me,” she said, still feeling proud.
“Mary Jean, but you love your father very much. How do you think you made your father feel when you yelled at him in anger?”
“I don’t know,” she surprisingly admitted, with the sudden innocence of a small child.
“Mary Jean, for your homework, I would like you to go and ask your father how he felt when you yelled at him for not wanting to take the medicine, okay? I want you to try to understand how your behavior affects another person.”
Mary Jean forcefully nodded her head in agreement, her red curly hair bouncing up and down, as she scribbled down her assignment in her journal.
As Mary Jean briskly exited the door, I shut and locked it behind me, feeling relieved that the session was over. And that I had my peaceful room back to myself. Collapsing in my chair in exhaustion, I wondered if Mary Jean will ever get a breakthrough and figure herself out? Would she ever be able to see how her mean behavior hurts others and pushes them away? Would she ever show up to a session talking about what she did and try to understand why?
Getting people to change is hard. Accepting my clients exactly as they are is sometimes even harder. I felt frustrated and defeated after the hour with Mary Jean. To ground back into myself, I opened up my Bhagavad Gita to read some words of inspiration, which I had not done for some time. Actually, for one week, to be exact, since my last meeting with Mary Jean. The bookmark was in chapter 2, so I flipped the page, and began reading at the spot I left off the week before. Immediately, my eyes were soothed and my heart relaxed by reading the practical advice of Sri Krishna at the top of the page.
“Perform your duties, being steadfast in yoga, while renouncing desire for the fruits and remaining equipoised in success and failure. This equanimity of mind is called yoga.”
Reading Krishna’s wise words, I realized that I did not need to feel exhausted by Mary Jean. In fact, in one way, she was just like all of my other clients, struggling with some issue or another. I didn’t have to try so hard to get her to change. I did not have to feel so defeated when she did not change. And, even on the off-chance that she did actually change one day, I should not feel elated. If I can perform my duty as a therapist in a compassionate way, yet detached from my success or failure in getting a client to change, then I can remain peaceful even if I have 100 Mary Jean’s!