Am I too much?
‘She said I was too much.’
There. I’ve said it. My shame is disclosed and I tighten reflexively, waiting for the words that will doom me to hopelessness: ‘Yes, you are too much.’
Instead the silence wafts gently between us, backwards and forwards, like a palm leaf.
It was a friend of mine just after university who first said it. I was having a bit of a breakdown – just a fun-size one rather than the maxi version I would have in my thirties. I had nowhere to live. I had no money or work. And things were unravelling around me. I spent an evening in this friend’s college room and at some point I started having flashbacks. Or dissociating. Or something. I didn’t have the words for it then. But I was back in a place of pain, and it was evidently difficult to watch. Afterwards she told me that she couldn’t cope with me, that she didn’t want to be friends with me, that I was ‘too much’.
At one level I understood it. She was an undergraduate studying politics. She had no knowledge or awareness of mental health issues. She wanted a friend to hang out with and do student-based stuff with. She hadn’t signed up to witness that. She didn’t know how to handle it, so not surprisingly her reaction was flight. Maybe she wasn’t proud of herself for it. Maybe she later regretted it. But I took it personally, and failed to mentalise all the myriad reasons for her saying what she was saying. I took it to be self-evident truth.
I am too much for people.
The silence sits drably between me and the therapist, now, as these words seep through the air. I feel terror and shame. I am afraid, not only that I am too much, but that by saying I am too much, I am being too much. I want to reach out and take my words back, to swallow them down, and never speak of it again.
I have been coming for therapy for half a year. The therapist has recently announced a break: she is going on sabbatical for a few months. I can only assume that this is because I am too much.
I am always too much for people.
I don’t know why I’ve brought it up in this particular session. Maybe somewhere deep on the inside I needed to vocalise my belief that I have caused the break, by being too much; that I therefore fear that she will not return, because I am too much; and that no-one will ever help me again in the future, because I am too much. I feel my only potential strategy, in seeking help, is to mislead: I mustn’t tell anyone how bad things are, how extensive the abuse, how far-reaching the dissociation, how terrible the nightmares, how profound the despair. Because if I do, they won’t want to work with me, because I will be too much.
I want to ask her how I stop being too much, so that I can get the help I need for being too much. But I daren’t say it, in case it’s too much.
So the silence thickens, like stirring sauce.
Eventually, the therapist speaks. She bobs in slightly towards me, like she’s ducking under the surface of an invisible pond, and her eyes narrow.
‘Do you think you were too much for her at that time, or do you think that you’re always too much for everyone?’
Disappointment pools in my gut. I wanted her to say, But you’re not too much! I wanted the easy way out, of facile reassurance. I wanted her to make me feel better, not push me deeper into the pain. Ugh.
I force my mind onto the question. Of course I’m too much for everyone. It is who I am. It is intrinsic to me. I am a builder’s bag of neediness and no-one will ever be able to fill it. I am doomed to neediness and unrequited love and so I will always feel ashamed of who and what I am.
And so comes the feeling, surfacing up through me, of utter self-contempt. I hate being me. I hate being too much for people. I hate being needy. I am wrong, wrong, wrong and there’s no way to be right.
I drop my gaze as the shame rises hotly through me. I don’t want her to see me. I want to withdraw my request for help and connection. I want to make sure that right here, right now, in this session, I’m not too much. Her impending absence hangs above me like Damocles’ sword. If I am too much, she won’t come back.
And here is where I’m stuck. If I don’t engage with her now, if I don’t make the most of the session, if I don’t do what clients are supposed to do in therapy and think things through and be open and vulnerable and honest and real, then she won’t come back either. I need to express my need without being needy. I need to talk about how I feel without vomiting those feelings over her. I need to get it right. I need to get it right now.
‘I don’t think people know how to cope with me, and I understand that,’ I say, but the words sound like a lawyer-approved press release.
And indeed, she frowns. Only slightly, but I sense it. Or I imagine it – I’m not sure which. Because I’m not looking at her, and I can’t look at her, and suddenly all that I can think about is whether this is our last session and whether I’m going to blow it and whether I’m too much even for a professional whom I’m paying.
I’m too much. Stop being too much.
This therapist is a trainee still. That helps, because maybe she won’t realise that I’m too much: she won’t have a long history of other clients against which to judge me. But maybe her inexperience will make her particularly prone to being overwhelmed by me. So I need to convince her that I’m not too much. That if she feels that I am, then that is her inexperience talking, and she’s seeing me in order to build up her experience, and so she needs to push through. Yes, that’s the plan. I need her to keep giving me a chance. But to do so, I need to tune down my neediness. I need to not be too much.
But what if I’m being too much by trying too hard not to be too much?
I sit in my own tangle of impossibilities.
The leaves on the tree outside the window are rustling. It is gloomy in here, as if what happens in here is so shameful that it blocks out the daylight. And in coming here, I always have the sense, winding down the endless corridor to find this last, tucked-away room, that the only acceptable way for me to be here is if I am as far removed from other occupants of the building as possible.
She exhales noisily, but only because the silence is so loud.
‘You know, you’re not too much here,’ she says.
Is this a trick? Why is she saying this?
I sit, frozen and unalert, as if by stillness and shut-down I can evade the paradox of what she is saying. I have always been too much – for everyone – and so her words impact on the surface of my mind as lies, as deceits, as mistakes, as trainee’s naiveties. And I can’t think what to say, so I stare back at her emptily, willing her to do something or say something or be something that will shift me out of my stuckness.
And even as I sit there, I fear that I am being too much. I want to wriggle out of the shameful, mortifying awkwardness of being me.
‘I think that’s probably hard for you to believe, isn’t it?’ she says at last. She’s bobbing in towards me again, like she’s trying to reach me across the puddle of my self-contempt. I don’t know how she manages to be aloof and immanent all at the same time. There’s a quality about her, that she manages neither to sink into my pit with me, but nor does she sit distantly on the outside of it, calling patronisingly into it.
I desperately, desperately don’t want to be too much for her.
I still don’t know what to say, and I don’t mean to stretch out the silence, but words simply won’t come. I’m stuck in the guilty impossibility of who and what I am and I have no idea what I could possibly say in response to any of her questions. I want to speak, but there is just white space in my brain where words should be. I semaphore to her instead with my eyes.
She shifts in her chair. ‘Let’s approach this a different way,’ she says, and her voice is like the gentle lapping of waves, like she’s trying to coax me out of my puddle. ‘Tell me what it feels like to be too much for people.’
Oh, now there are words. Now the words won’t stop. I could tell her this for three months straight, without drawing breath.
And I’m not sure where the emotion comes from, but here it is, breaking upon me like surf onto rocks. It is a subtle shift within me, but the youngness of my heartache surfaces and I watch myself, as from a distance, as if I’m not really me, and as if I have no control over my words, which gurgle out, falling over one another in their eagerness to be heard.
‘I’ve always been too much for people,’ I say – or rather this other part of me does. ‘I’ve always been too much. People have never liked me, or wanted me. I have to be quiet, and not say anything, and not do anything, and not be anything, and not exist, and that’s the only way that it’s okay for me to be me. I’m wrong if I have feelings. I’m wrong if I get upset. There’s all this stuff – the trauma, the abuse, the stuff that happened to me – and it’s messed my life up, but I mustn’t tell anyone or talk about it or refer to it or be affected by it, because it’s too much. No one wants to hear it. No one wants to know about it. No one wants to feel it. So I have to hide it and hide it, and I have to push it away deep down within myself, so that no one can see. But it doesn’t go away and it doesn’t stop affecting me and it’s all too much – it’s all too much, even for me.’
The flood of words won’t stop. I can do nothing about it.
‘When I went for counselling at university, the man there said it was too much and we just had to concentrate on me learning to count to ten. But counting to ten didn’t stop it. That didn’t solve it. It didn’t make any of it go away. I didn’t understand why he thought that it would. I think he was overwhelmed by it, and that was just a tiny bit of it back then. So he always said, I just had to count to ten. But I could count to ten thousand and it would still be there. It’s not as easy as that. I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t let me talk about it … I didn’t understand why it was too much even for him …’
The words are mangled and mashed together with sobs and panic and labile, wretched self-hatred, and I watch this unfold, sitting at a distance, empty and silent and ever so slightly horrified. This is what they call co-consciousness, but I don’t understand it. I don’t understand who ‘I’ am right now. I just feel dreadfully ashamed of this word-full, feeling-full, terror-full person sitting there with the therapist, crying and talking, and being too much.
As the words ebb away, I feel myself slightly more present, but I’m mortified and afraid. This is exactly what I promised myself I wouldn’t do in therapy. And here I am, doing it again. If I’m being too much, if she doesn’t come back from her break, I’ll only have myself to blame.
But she speaks and her face is wrinkled all over with concern and kindness and empathy. I don’t understand it, but it is.
‘Often when people feel that they are ‘too much’, it’s because that’s how they were treated by their very first caregivers,’ she says, measuring out her words like she’s scooping cake mixture into tiny paper cases. ‘And that’s often because that primary caregiver can’t cope with emotion and closeness. It comes across in their attachment style and what’s called insecure-avoidant attachment. But the child – the baby, the infant – gets the message that they are wrong for having feelings and for wanting to be close. They don’t see that it’s a problem that the adult has, rather than them. They just know that if they express their emotions or their needs, they don’t get a positive response. So they learn that the only way to keep that person close is to suppress their feelings. They grow up believing that it’s wrong for them to have feelings, and that if they express them, they are ‘too much’.’
Yes. Yes. This is it. How does she know?
She looks at me, perhaps trying to see if I’m following her, if it resonates. I feel both horrified and relieved that she understands.
‘And so,’ she continues, ‘you end up believing that the problem is in you, rather than in your mother. You assume your feelings are wrong, and that your needs are evil. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, for a child to mentalise and understand that the problem is not with them. They just assume it is. And so with everyone else you encounter in life, you work on the basis that it’s safer not to have needs and express your feelings, in case you’re rejected, like you were by your mother.
‘The sense you made of your mother’s inability to cope with feelings – her feelings, your feelings, any feelings – was that there was something wrong with you having feelings, and that your feelings were too much. But that said more about your mother than it did about you.’
I nod, trying to take it in. It feels wrong, because it is new. It feels scary, because it changes everything, and I’m not sure I’m ready for everything to change. Not just yet. But I also want it to be true. I want it to be true that I am not too much for everyone.
‘But,’ I say, suddenly, as another thought hits me, ‘… but my stuff is too much. All the abuse, the trauma, the dissociation, the triggers, the flashbacks … it IS too much for people. It’s not just me thinking it’s too much for them because my mother couldn’t cope with feelings. It really is too much.’
She nods and unwraps her fingers from where she’s holding them with her other hand, like she’s applying hand cream, then wraps them up again.
‘It’s true that you do have more than most people to deal with,’ she says. ‘And I can understand why your friend at university couldn’t handle it. But you are not too much. The trauma you experienced is too much. There’s a difference.’
But the trauma is mine, I think. Blaming my neediness on the trauma doesn’t stop me being needy. But I don’t say this, because I don’t want her to think I’m disagreeing with her.
She looks at me intently, like she’s trying to read my thoughts, and deliberately I mask them and try to be good.
‘So there are two things going on here,’ she continues, in the absence of my engagement. ‘You believe, by default, that you’re too much, that no-one can handle you and no-one will want to know about your ‘stuff’.’
‘And then you do also have a lot of trauma to deal with, which most people would in fact find too overwhelming. They wouldn’t know how to help, and they wouldn’t know how to handle it. And although that’s painful for you, it’s understandable. We can’t expect the whole world to be able to deal with trauma, even though we’d like them to. But that’s why you’re here.’
She pauses, and I catch a glimpse of her face as I stare out towards the tree. It’s not angry. It’s not despising. It’s not rejecting. It is soft, even compassionate. It echoes her words. It says, You’re not too much here.
Can I dare to believe this?
All my life, I have believed that I am too much. All my life, I have despised my neediness. All my life, I have been scared of having feelings. I have never understood how to relate to people. I have never understood what it means to reach out to people in need, and have that need responded to. And this, always, has been the source of my shame: a need expressed that goes unmet.
But here I am, in therapy, expressing a need – the need not to be needy – and it is being heard and held. I am not being shamed. I am not being told I am wrong. I am instead being given an explanatory framework which shifts the blame away from my intrinsic badness and onto the inadequacy of the parenting I received as a child.
Just for a moment I become acutely aware of her words – penetrating my left brain, logical and rational – alongside her presence. Her warmth, her here-ness, the look of softness in her eyes, long fingers gently holding themselves in a ball between us: the indescribable connection of another human being rubbing itself like oil over my right brain. And I realise that her words would have no power without her presence.
I sigh, and a little tension escapes me. I sag into her acceptance. I can’t quite believe yet that I’m not too much, but I have truly never seen it from the viewpoint that she is now presenting.
‘So how do I get what I need from people without overwhelming them?’ I say at last. Because this to me has been my eternal conundrum. Hold myself at a distance, closed and hidden, and people find me aloof and unfriendly. Let people in, disclose the secret shame of my traumatic background, and my neediness crushes people with its weight and intensity.
She chews on her thoughts for a while before responding. Then carefully, she says: ‘Your trauma ‘need’, if that’s what we can call it, is high right now. You’ve only just begun to process it. But it won’t always be like this. Over time, the work we do together will let the pressure out. So your need won’t be so great. You won’t be like this forever.’
The work we do together … she’s planning on coming back. I can’t focus on the rest of what she’s saying because this phrase has clapped upon my consciousness in giddy relief.
‘And different people can cope with different levels of need,’ she continues. ‘Here, in therapy, is the right place to process trauma. With the milkman, you just exchange pleasantries. He doesn’t need to know.’
I snap back into what she’s saying. ‘What about with friends?’
She chews her lip a little. ‘It depends,’ she says. ‘You have to weigh that one up. Friendship is not therapy. The weight of processing trauma can crush a friendship because the trauma is too big, not because the friend isn’t good enough. As therapists, we have training to help us manage the weight of it. We have boundaries. We have supervision and support.’
I feel ashamed that my trauma could crush someone, but I know that she’s right. And, at least in some small part of my brain, I also know that it’s not my fault.
‘When we’ve reduced some of the pressure of trauma, your friends will be able to cope with it better,’ she says. ‘What you really want is for your friends to be friends with you, not friends with your trauma. Your trauma is part of what happened to you, and it affects how you react to things in the here-and-now. But your trauma isn’t you.’
The reality of this dawns gradually upon me. I have always seen the entirety of my life, since my breakdown, through the lens of my trauma. It has overwhelmed my vision. Going to the cinema or out for drinks with friends has been an issue of my trauma, rather than an issue of friendship and having a nice time. I have felt that by not talking about it, I am hiding it and being deceptive. But of course, I am not. I am merely adapting to the social situation I am in. My friendships don’t have to be mediated through the variable of trauma.
I lean forwards slightly in my chair. My shame is subsiding. She is saying that it is okay for me to have needs, even if people can’t cope with them. And she is saying that my needs are okay, in all their hideous, ugly excess, here, with her.
‘I’m not too much?’ I ask, curling up slightly in the conflict between hope and dread.
‘You’re not too much,’ she says, pink-cheeked and earnest, like she is swearing an oath. ‘Your trauma was too much … too much for you, which is why we call it trauma. And so unsurprisingly, it is often too much for other people. But that’s not your fault. That’s the fault, only and always, of the people who traumatised you.’ She pauses, and the air sings with expectation.
‘If people say you are too much,’ she continues, ‘then don’t take that personally. Maybe the trauma is too much for them. Maybe they don’t have any capacity for anyone other than themselves right now, because of what’s going on in their own lives. But don’t just assume that you are too much.’
I am not too much.
The shame of being too much is too entrenched within the foundations of my self-beliefs for me to shed it in this one session. But it is a start. I am not too much. I will have to think about this. I will have to let it soak deeply into my roots. I will have to lie awake with it at night and observe it from all angles. It is too new an idea for me to simply accept it. But it is a start. Like everything I face in therapy, it starts with a start.
I am not too much.
A word of explanation
I had therapy mainly between 2006 and 2015. These blog posts are not verbatim accounts of sessions, but rather the client equivalent of ‘case studies’ - amalgamations of various sessions, ‘narratively true’ rather than ‘historically true’. Although often written for stylistic purposes in the present tense, they are very much from a past period of my life. Ideally they should be read within the wider context of other blog posts, articles and my book, to give a more integrated and rounded sense of where I was at, where I’m at now, and the process that took place between those two points. I have been on a journey of recovery, and the difference in me from when I was in therapy (especially at the beginning) to now is testament to the brain’s ability to recover from even the most appalling suffering.
My primary work now is writing, followed closely by training therapists, counsellors and other professionals to support survivors of trauma. Regrettably I cannot provide one-to-one support but our charity framework PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) provides a helpline and a range of other services: please go to www.pods-online.org.uk for more information, and https://support.pods-online.org.uk/start-here if you are looking for support.
For training, please see our range of live courses at www.carolynspring.com/live-training, and our online courses at www.carolynspring.com/online-training. We also publish a range of resources to support recovery from trauma, which you can see at www.carolynspring.com/shop. My first book, Recovery is my best revenge, is available to buy at https://www.carolynspring.com/shop/recovery-is-my-best-revenge-paperback/