Best Therapy Session Ever

It has been almost three weeks since we last met with our marriage counselor, and I am still trying to process everything that we learned.  I've been trying to write about it off and on, but it all comes out too concentrated, not at all what I want to say.  Partly, I know, because I am reluctant to talk directly about what my husband and I have been going through with our counselor these past two years.  But also because it now seems as if everything I have ever thought about myself and my relationships with others has been blown away.  It is, indeed, a brave new world that I inhabit now.  How on earth can I tell you how I got here?

Perhaps I should just let it be stilted and awkward and (potentially) long-winded since trying to be pithy is just confusing.  Okay.  Okay, okay, okay.  I'll tell you.  Okay.   Here goes.  Okay.

So, every so often, I ask my husband to do something.  For example, just a few minutes ago, I was out on our back porch taking the garbage out and I was thinking what a shame it was now that the weather is so nice that we hadn't brought our porch chairs back up after the workmen did the resealing last month, and so when I came in, I said, "We need to get the chairs back up from the basement."  And he said, "Knock yourself out."  Or words to that effect.  Basically, meaning, "Sure, nothing is stopping you, you can bring the chairs back upstairs if you like."  But with the subtext (at least, as I heard it): "But I won't help you."  Or, rather: "I don't care if you bring them up, it's nothing to do with me."  Or, rather...I don't know, I didn't ask, it was just one of those snarky remarks that he makes from time to time and to which I am inclined to overreact.

So, feeling got at and not knowing what to do in such situations, three weeks ago I ask our counselor: "What should I do when he says something like this?"  And she says: "Respond with equal heat."  I bristle.  "But he's being so mean to me.  Why does he have to make comments like that?  Why can't he just respond nicely?"  Already, I am getting ready to get on the roller coaster of overreaction.  "[Our son] and I took the chairs downstairs when he was out of town, the least he could do is help bring them back up.  He sits out there--or he used to, before he stopped smoking last autumn--just as much as we do.  Why shouldn't he help?"  So, she says (hypothetically--I'm just using the chairs as the example I can think of now; it's always a bugger, thinking of specific examples): "Why not just ask him directly to help with the chairs?  Why say it so indirectly?"

I have all my spines out now.  "Why should I have to ask him?  Besides, when I do, he just says no.  I just won't ask him for help anymore.  I don't need his help anyway, I can take care of almost everything myself.  That's what he wants, right?  For me not to need his help."  "Whoa," she says, "where is all of this coming from?"  (Actually, she knows quite well, but she is trying to make me see.)  It's hard, the roller coaster has already made it to the top of the first peak and is ready to start down the hill.  (Sorry, mixing metaphors here; just imagine a hedgehog, spines out, riding a roller coaster--that's me in one of these interactions.)  (OMG, this is hard to narrate.  I am having a serious carb-craving right now.  Well, a craving for an Atkins bar, but I just had breakfast, so I know it's not hunger.  Breathe.)  "Equal heat," she keeps saying, "this is not equal heat."

"But, but, but," I bluster, "I feel so threatened."  "Why?," she asks.  "All that he has said is that you can bring the chairs in if you like."  Me: "But why wouldn't he say yes?  Why wouldn't he offer to help?"  Our counselor: "Why can't you just ask him?"  And round, and round it goes, as I fight the suggestion that it is in fact okay for me to ask directly for something that I want him to do.  Me: "But he started it.  Why couldn't he say something different, like, 'Let's do it when I get home'?  Why am I the one who always has to come up with the right thing to say?"  "Well," she says, "why should he?"  Me: "Because he is the one who said something mean.  How it is that I end up having to apologize?"  Our counselor: "Whoever said you did?"  Gradually, the roller coaster is starting to slow, but there are still several bends yet to come.

Hard ones, ones that throw me from one side of my self-esteem to the other. "Okay, so let me get this straight.  I say something, he says something snarky back.  But it is not my fault that he said something snarky."  It is amazing how difficult this is for me to believe.  Me: "It's not my fault?  But it's always my fault.  It's my fault for being weak.  It's my fault for being needy."  Again, she says: "Whoever said that?  This isn't about fault, it is about responding with equal heat."  That phrase again: equal heat.  Me: "But I don't know how.  If he's said something mean and I don't respond, doesn't that mean I just have to suck it up?"  She says: "No, that is not equal heat either."  This, dear readers, I am both embarrassed and exhilarated to report, comes as a world-shattering revelation to me.

I can't believe what I'm hearing.  "You mean I am allowed to push back when someone says something snarky or hurtful or mean?"  And she says: "Yes.  Why not?"  Me: "Because he might get mad at me if I push back."  And she says: "So what?  Just respond with equal heat."   "But, but, but..."  I still can't believe what I'm hearing.  She continues: "But keep it in the present.  Respond with equal heat to what has been said right now, don't start dragging in the past."  This is hard, I am thrown again.  I can feel the panic rising.  "How can I possibly keep things in the present when there is always so much history in the past?  Shouldn't he know that saying things like that upsets me?  Why should I have to be the grown-up here?"  And, again, she says: "Equal heat.  If he's being a jerk, respond to the jerk, but with only enough force to balance what he said right now."  I'm still struggling, the roller coaster is still rocking me from side to side.  I'm scared.

I realize, as we're talking, that I am in fact scared (indeed, deathly scared) to stand up for myself when someone says something snarky or threatening or dismissive or rude to me.  I am scared to say what I think, so, typically, I overreact out of that fear, either by telling myself that it is all my fault that the other person said something so mean (it must be my fault, right? otherwise why would they say it?); or by going on the attack, bristles out, in the hopes of scaring them away.  It goes back to my childhood; I know it goes back to my childhood, which is why the response is so overwhelming, so primal.  I'm scared of being attacked, and yet even more scared to defend myself because I am not convinced that I am allowed (because it was my fault for provoking the attack, because I should have tried harder to make the other person like me, because it's only my imagination that the other person said something mean).  And so, yes, I overreact, because that is what animals do when they're scared.  (I've managed to frighten myself right now, just thinking about it.  I could really use that Atkins bar.)  But--and this is what our counselor showed me as we were talking--I don't need to be.  I am not obliged or expected to apologize when someone attacks me ("Sorry, never mind, I shouldn't have asked, I know you're busy"), nor even simply to ignore or absorb the attack (which, this morning, I did; good for reconstructing our session, bad for my nerves).  I am allowed to respondWith equal heat.

Which means, among other things, that I am allowed to trust myself when I sense that somebody else has been rude.  I am allowed to call attention to their rudeness (with, of course, equal heat).  I am allowed to push back when someone pushes me (again, with equal heat).  I am allowed to call someone out for behaving badly (but always, for my own sake, with equal, not intemperate heat).  It spills into other things: I am allowed to ask directly for something I want or need, without apologizing.  I am allowed to take care of myself, to protect myself from other people's anger or impatience or bullying because it is not my fault that they behave badly towards me except insofar as I allow them to bully me.  This does not mean that I am required or expected to be snarky back (that would be overreacting, depending on the circumstances).  It does mean that, for possibly the first time in my life, I feel safe.  Because I know that I am allowed to protect myself from other people's efforts to make me feel mean.

Which is not to say that that was what my husband was doing when he responded in the way that he did to my suggestion about bringing in the chairs; he was just being glib.  But, thanks to the work that we did in our session, I can see that now.  Even if I do still wish that he would help me without being asked, smug git that he is.  (Was that too heated?  I still need practice at this....)

Like I said, best therapy session ever.  Equal heat.


  1. This is a tricky one, I have had to deal with this kind of behavior with my family for a long time (forever?). The typical situation would involve a family member's snarky remark about my physical appearance, or about my supposed "arrogance" - I was the first in my family to go to college, and doing a PhD triggered very negative reactions. I used to respond to the snarky remark with another snarky remark (OK, maybe with a level-2 snarky remark). The problem is that it just reinforced their belief in my "arrogance" and justified their bullying.

    Then I realized that if I did not fire back (and repeated the mantra: I will be on a plane to another continent next week...) then the atmosphere was somewhat breathable. Deep inside I know they are wrong, but I can hardly modify the improbable stories they spin about myself in their heads.

    I suppose it works in my case because I live 4,000 miles away from them, and not under the same roof, thank goodness.

    Maybe because equal heat only works with people who understand the world the same way you do? Or operate on the same wave length, with the ability to acknowledge their own behavior if you place a mirror in front of them - your very own snarky remark?

  2. "Equal heat" does not mean "tit-for-tat." For example, if I were to respond to your comment in the way that my first reaction suggests (and from the excitable state in which I am in after a difficult day), it would be to say something along the lines of, "How dare you question the revelation that I had in this session? Can't you see how important it was to me to have this break-through? Fuck you, you have no idea how long I've struggled with this issue. What the hell do you know about how hard it's been for me to feel allowed to speak up for myself?" But that would not be equal heat. So I need to breathe and think for a moment about why you said what you did, staying in the present with what you suggest. Without trying to defend myself. Without thinking that I need to defend myself. Snarkiness is usually a sign of insecurity, the need to be snarky a sign of feeling on the defensive. So, yes, if your family is snarky and you're snarky back, they are starting on the defensive and your response only escalates things. Whereas if you are able to hear what they're saying for what it is (a shield against their own insecurities), then you don't have to respond out of anger; you can respond only as strongly as you need to what they've said in the moment. My sample response in the post ("smug git") was too strong--it was still heated, still not out of a confident place in myself. As I said, it takes practice not to be put on the defensive by what other people say. The revelation that I had was that I didn't need to be.

  3. Dear Fencing Bear,

    I was in no way questioning your break-through! I have been fortunate enough to have a couple of those moments in therapy too. I was merely pondering on your revelation, wondering if there were not other factors to count in because I could not make it fit in my own experience. But I had obviously misunderstood the concept of "equal heat". I really like your posts because they help me think about my own awkward interactions and make sense of them. Thank you for posting your thoughts in this blog.

  4. No worries! I gave the example of what it would be like to respond "with excessive heat" simply as illustration (although it was hard not to think some of what I said at the end of a long day!). As I tried to narrate in the post, it took me a whole session (on top of two years' worth of work with our counselor) to get to the point that I did. It is hard to respond "with equal heat"--not too passive (just letting the other person walk all over you), but not too aggressive either. It's not really (as I understand it) about matching exactly what the other person says, but rather about not escalating something unnecessarily, in either direction. What I wonder is if there is a better phrase to use than "equal heat" because I agree it can be confusing. But that was the phrase that our counselor kept using, so I had to grapple with it.


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