A client logs on to our appointment, nervously checking their hair in the camera window and grinning weakly at me. This is therapy now. Seeing each other in a small black lined square, taking our first few seconds of our appointment to check our microphones, the position of our webcams, adjusting our volumes. Can you see me? Can you hear me ok? Great!
We do our best to stay present with one another, but it’s hard. There’s a disconnect (sometimes quite literally) without seeing them in the room, but we are making do. The pandemic has made us the kings and queens of adaptation. We trouble shoot technology while discussing trauma. We co-create narratives through microphones, and headsets, and AirPods.
It’s different for me, as a clinician who exclusively worked with in-person counseling sessions pre-pandemic. I did telephone calls for brief check ins only. But since 2020, I’d say the majority of my day is done digitally. It was a steep learning curve of trying to translate the work I do into a video or telephone medium, but I will say there is one universal aspect that has not changed in the slightest that I always address with my clients.
It’s what I call the ‘Update Dump’.
Let me paint the picture again: here’s that client, logging on (or in the rare case sitting down in my office, 6 feet away with mask in place), and we say our pleasantries. Hello, how’re you, enjoying the weather? It’s basic social etiquette to pretend, for a brief moment, that this is a social meeting and I just happen to be holding a clipboard and have diplomas on the wall behind me.
Then I ask: “So, tell me how you’ve been?” and the floodgates open.
Inevitably, almost every time, and I’m really not exaggerating on that point, my clients will then let loose an absolute torrent of information about their week. The good, the bad, the beautiful, the sad. I will hear stories and narratives of how simple events felt for them, their perceptions and reactions and responses. Their thoughts and realizations. It pours forth like a dam breaking to fill the space between us. Sometimes just a laundry list of frustrations. Other times it’s a well-planned out journal entry (with supporting documentation on their lap), of their own processing; these connections they are making.
And finally, when the gush of words becomes a trickle, they will say: “I’m sorry, that was a lot.”
Their embarrassment is palpable. They feel ashamed for their stream of consciousness that now litters the floor around us. Their eyes beg me to tell them this is allowed; that it’s not abnormal to feel like they are bursting at the seams with so much to say and it’s a relief to finally have it out of them. To share that burden.
And I ALWAYS smile and say “It’s fine! In fact, it’s great! We have so much to work with today.”
They stare back, bewildered as if I just grew a second head.
And this got me wondering.
What is going on here that people assume coming to therapy and spilling your guts is… a bad thing? Isn’t that the purpose? Isn’t the mere act of therapy supposed to be about understanding our inner workings? How can we do that without verbalizing them?
And it brought me to a sense of self-acceptance and how we view our thoughts.
We view them as the enemy.
Have you ever felt like that? That your brain was working against you? It is your sworn nemesis, tripping you up wherever you turn, making you say and do things you find embarrassing and shameful. It tells you horrible things about yourself, or what others perceive of you. We’ve grown up fearing our own brains, and I see this playing out during that first burst of speech at the start of my sessions with my clients.
They are mad at themselves for not already having the answers, or for feeling disjointed in their thinking. That they don’t come prepared with a bullet point list of things that already make sense. Or maybe it’s shame for the fact that they have SO MANY thoughts and feelings.
So I am on a life-long campaign to explain this concept: that’s not how brains work.
Your brain is supposed to jump and bounce and pop in with new thoughts every few moments. Some studies have hypothesized we have anywhere from 12,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day (although the more general average seems to be around the 60,000 mark). I won’t go too deep into testing those theories and the statistical analysis but even just SUPPOSING there is some truth to these claims… that’s a lot of thoughts.
The brain works using two systems for memory: Long-term and working memory (which used to be called short-term memory). There’s some debate whether short-term memory is still a valid concept before the name change, bringing the total up to 3 distinct systems at play, and that working memory is simply the action of trying to sort out what is waiting in short-term.
So let’s break it down: Long-term memory is pretty self explanatory. Your brain logs the important stuff for safe keeping a little more permanently; people you know, events in your life, the theme songs of your favourite 90s sitcoms and the names of all the My Little Ponies. It’s like a bunch of filing cabinets.
Short-term memory is like your desk. You might have an inbox, and an outbox, and a couple folders that are there, but the organization system isn’t concrete yet. You want to review this stuff one last time to make sure it’s indexed properly, and annotated. It’s on your list of ‘To-Dos’ and can sometimes make your desk feel messy and cluttered, hence the pressure to file it away permanently (move it to long-term) and clear off the desk.
But working memory is a little different. It’s the first stage where your brain holds everything that happening around you presently. Think of it as a note pad. It only has so much room, and it’s pretty active all the time.
So now imagine you’re preparing for therapy. There’s been some heavy stuff happening during your week, and you’re making little mental notes about things as you go through your day. Things that upset you, things that make you proud, things you didn’t even understand. And your brain is going along with you, furiously filling up that working memory and short-term, trying to decide what to keep and what you put into long-term. It’s like a harried personal assistant, trying to keep up with your nervous system and all its demands and observations.
Another thing to remember about working memory is that it iss limited. That note pad? Only holds about 5-7 ‘chunks’ of information at a time. So now it’s juggling these thoughts to keep them fresh and it’s only got so much room to hold it all. Or it’s having to drop one thing, to pull another back OUT of long-term memory (like a file you asked it to retrieve from a filing cabinet) so you can re-read your past thoughts.
Long story short… your brain is doing a LOT of jobs at once, and it feels the pressure of the over-flowing inbox and the messy desk, and when it finally has someone else there to help it (or a strategy it can use to relieve the stress), it will happily dump all that information out in hopes of seeking relief.
It makes sense then, when you enter the office of someone who you’ve started to associate as a safe person who helps you understand complex theories and connections, that you would let it all come out with no regard for organization because… well… that person is going to help! And you and your brain have been having a hard time managing it all on your own!
I LOVE the ‘Update Dump’. It makes me smile every time. Because I see it as a sign that you’ve been working hard at using that working memory, and you’ve been making observations and doing the work that is necessary for therapy.
So when you come into therapy, and feel ashamed that you just ‘unleashed the beast’ all over your therapist by bombarding them with information… please think of it like this. Your therapist is a new assistant, ready to help you tidy up that desk and you are encouraged to delegate some of the big brain work to us. Or work together to brainstorm solutions. We will figure out what you can prioritize in your working memory, how to tidy up your short-term, and what connections we can make with long-term. Some files you don’t need anymore. Some things we can stroke right out with a satisfying pen-slash as we see it from a new perspective. Other things don’t make sense in isolation because they actually connect with a file that’s buried deep in the back of your filing system. Other thoughts are mislabelled, or the mistranslated and they might actually not be helpful in the long run so we need to do some editing. That’s why they lingered; there shouldn’t even BE a file for them because they weren’t useful in the first place. Some of it seemed important in the moment, but now we recognize it can actually go in the recycling bin (or better yet, the shredder if it’s a negative self concept).
So embrace that big brain you’ve got that is throwing a million things at you. It actually has a system, albeit a cluttered one. And your therapist can help you make sense of it all.
Therapists are the Marie Kondo of your brain.
So bring it on.