One of my clients (who has given permission for me to use her example) had approached me to treat her severe depression and anxiety. The point at which she had realised that she needed to seek professional help was when she was on her way to grab lunch, happily talking with other people and joking. At one point she stopped, because pigeons were in her way. She paused, waiting until the pigeons had picked up their food from the ground. Her thought was “I don’t want to disturb the pigeons; I don’t want to be a nuisance to them”. It took some time before the pigeons dispersed and all that time she was waiting. She was running out of lunch time. Finally she decided to go ahead and noticed that she was apologising to the pigeons for disturbing them. She felt uncomfortable, feeling that she had to say sorry, even to a pigeon, for being a cause of its discomfort.
It was a revelation to her. In our session she recognised that all her life she had been putting others first – avoiding confrontation and not asserting her wants and needs, because she does not want to cause discomfort for anyone, even when it means discomfort for herself. At work, she would never refuse to take on extra workload; she did not refuse to undertake work for which she was not being paid. Everyone knew that, although she was overloaded with work, she was the one who would always take on more. With friends, if anything needed doing urgently, she would always help even at her own expense. In her intimate relationship she would forget what she wanted but always give precedence to the needs of her partner. All those around her were happy with the support she provided for them. The only one who was not happy was her. She was actually slipping into depression, losing self-respect and isolating herself from others. When she noticed that she had to apologise for being a nuisance to the pigeon she realised that she was “not important”; the pigeon had become more important than her.
She is not the only one. There are many clients in my practice who have a similar presentation, having a lack of assertiveness with others and fearing that they will be rejected. They worry that they will lose friends if they finally articulate what they want and need. They may be worried that they might lose out on promotion. They worry that others will think that they are not good enough or that they are selfish.
In our therapy, we redefined the idea of selfishness. Someone in this situation needs to remember their priorities so that they will be able to help others. When we forget about our needs, we become depressed and angry. When you feel depression and anger, it is unlikely that you will have capacities to help others. Since completing therapy, my Client has developed confidence in articulating to others what she wants from situations; at work she set up very clear boundaries. She is clear with colleagues about how much work she can undertake. By communicating clearly, her relationship with her partner improved and, more importantly, her self-respect improved. Now, when pigeons are in her way, she no longer says sorry but rather keeps walking and smiles. When I write my book on therapy, I will call it “Say sorry to the pigeon”.