Parents value grades and achievement
Re’ut came from a very educated family that put a high value on academic achievement. Her mother was a scientist and her father was a teacher in a prestigious yeshiva. All of her brothers and sisters were high flyers. But Re’ut always struggled in school. There wasn’t a single class that she felt comfortable in. Re’ut’s school wasn’t willing to accept her poor grades and low test results. They insisted that she had an attitude problem, that she wasn’t trying hard enough, that she was messing up on purpose. Re’ut’s parents were much more supportive. They thought that the problem was that she lacked confidence, and so they became her cheerleaders. “You can do it”, they would reassure her. “Your talents will show through eventually. Just keep trying! No one is giving up on you!”
Even when Re’ut’s parents took her for a private assessment, and the results came through that Re’ut had a low IQ, they didn’t accept it. “What do these professionals know about our daughter”, they said to each other. She just has to really push herself and she’ll be able to manage.
The more she tried, the more humilating her failures became
Re’ut was close to her parents and she wanted to please them. But the more she tried and tried to manage the material, to remember information and complete the exercises, the more humiliating her failures became, and the worse she felt about herself. Gradually, Re’ut began to experience anxiety, which quickly became all consuming. She started to withdraw from everything, becoming entirely passive and uncommunicative. Her parents took her to a psychiatrist, who prescribed medication for the anxiety. Finally, when she turned seventeen and had all but completely shut down, Re’ut’s parents brought her to Kav L’Noar to see if therapy could help their daughter.
Could a Kav L’Noar Therapist Help?
By this point, Re’ut had become so anxious that she even identified the therapist as a deeply threatening figure. When the therapist would ask her a question, no matter how gently, Re’ut would see it as a test that she would fail, just like in school. She was so worried that she might ‘get the answer wrong’ that she couldn’t say anything. The therapist tried to reassure Re’ut that there were no wrong answers, that she was just trying to get to know her, but it didn’t make any difference.
The therapist decided that she had to somehow step out of her normal role and recalibrate the relationship between them. She wanted to temporarily remove her normal authority and place them both on a more equal footing. She decided that instead of facing each other, they would sit next to each other. Instead of talking, they would play games. At first, the therapist brought games that relied entirely on chance, on the roll of the dice to create a winner. As Re’ut started to relax, the therapist started to bring activities which required more thoughtful input and teamwork to succeed, like jigsaws, or they would draw pictures together or make collages from magazine photos.
Re’ut’s confidence started to rise and her anxiety started to ease
Very slowly, Re’ut’s confidence started to rise and her anxiety started to ease a little. Gradually, they began to talk more while working together. The therapist was careful never to stare at Re’ut so that she wouldn’t feel under pressure to come up with a response. She also tried to frame the activities and the conversations in a way that would build up Re’ut. Re’ut was so used to feeling judged by others, and to feeling like a failure. It was a new experience for her to feel accepted for who she was, to find value within herself.
Finding value beyond the grades
Months went by. At this point, Re’ut would respond to the therapist, but she would still never initiate. The therapist decided that Re’ut had come far enough to try something more demanding. They began a role-playing game. Re’ut and the therapist took turns to play the role of client and therapist. When it was Re’ut’s turn to ‘play the therapist’, she had to ask the questions. It made her giggle to repeat all the lines that she was used to hearing- “how does that make you feel.” “You’re looking a bit nervous. Did something that I said make you feel worried?” “Even though this is frustrating I can see that you’re managing to handle the situation.” When it was Re’ut’s turn to ‘play the client’- she was much more confident in expressing what was on her mind.
Re’ut felt so empowered that when her mother told her about the private math coach she’d found “who will definitely get you through your exam”- she looked her in the eye and said no thank you. “I know I’m not ever going to succeed in math, and that’s ok”, she said. “Things will just have to work out somehow even without passing the math exam.”
Coronavirus hit Israel
Just at the time when Re’ut was making incredible progress, Coronavirus hit Israel. The virus makes everybody feel anxious, but for someone already suffering from serious anxiety, it was all the more difficult. The therapist felt that it was crucial that they continue, but that video sessions, with their non-stop eye contact would be too intimidating and overwhelming for Re’ut. Instead, she decided to try phone sessions, with the goal of maintaining what they had achieved so far. The therapist was pleasantly surprised by how responsive Re’ut was. She was hesitant but clearly appreciated the calls. This itself was a sign of tremendous progress.
Re’ut and her therapist are looking forward to getting back together in person again soon.
*All names and identifying details have been changed to protect client confidentiality.