Every time I opened the door to Jane, I instantly recognized her odour. This used to rattle me at the very beginning of our work together, but after a few months I barely noticed it and simply opened the window to air the room after her departure, almost automatically as part of a familiar routine. She smelled of a neglected child, of sad days spent in unwashed pajamas and binge-eaten lonely meals.

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Jane was in her late 30s, and the main reason for her being in treatment was her feelings of shame. This is what I, as a therapist, thought, but if Jane were to explain it herself, she would have probably mentioned her anxiety and the emotional disappointments of being single and lonely in a foreign city. At least, this is what she had told me a few years ago as we first met.

We had been working together for a few years, and I had grown to like her a lot. She was a bubbly, intelligent woman with an acute sense of humour. We would often laugh together at one of her jokes, and her face would lighten up in a beautiful transformation. Despite these qualities and her professional achievements as an international school teacher, Jane thought less of herself and battled with a feeling of deep inadequacy.

In the first months of therapy, we explored her early history at length, to realize that her two parents had never been able to attune emotionally to her. Jane felt constantly unsafe around them, as they would suddenly explode in unhinged fights, often in public spaces such as a restaurant. This would leave their daughter paralyzed with embarrassment. For years, she had hoped that somehow her parents would get out of their bubbles, entirely occupied as they were by their respective work and their arguments, and that they would notice her presence and her suffering. Jane was an only child, and she could acutely remember her constant feeling of loneliness and despair. She would also be constantly torn between feelings of hurt and anger. Her parents would hardly notice, and when they occasionally did, the response was frustration from her mother and indifference from her father.

“I feel like I am stuck in a cold shower.”

Hearing her murmuring that, I tried to imagine myself naked and exposed to freezing water, unable to escape and paralyzed with confusion.

Jane had been living in this frozen state, her development seemed to have been stopped by the cold shower of her parents’ emotional misattunement, their indifference to her childhood needs.

I am horrified by accounts of adults who stop their child’s tantrums by placing them under cold water. Not only does it dismiss the child’s anger, but the wet, shivering child is made to feel shame as a result of this treatment. When parents are unable to cope with the overwhelming emotions that their child cannot yet process, it eventually pushes shame onto the child about this powerlessness.

This is probably where Jane was stuck — swollen with indignation and overwhelmed by shame. No wonder she had been avoiding showers.

Despite some steady friendships, Jane felt lonely and often dismissed or rejected by others. More than once, we reflected on which of her behaviors allowed or invited other people to push her away. Jane was starting to realize that her constant readiness to get angry and to lash out was not helping her interactions with others. She also knew that her stubbornness about not wanting “to make [herself] pretty” for men had trapped her in a place where she felt unattractive. She avoided all forms of exercise and was putting on weight.

But what about the smell?

Was it some unconscious strategy to put off others, especially potential intimate partners? Not unlike some insects, which have evolved to develop the capacity to produce a very unpleasant smell when threatened, Jane had learned how to keep others at arm’s length. Her conscious desire for a romantic relationship had not outplayed the unconscious fear of being pushed back under the cold shower by somebody unable or unwilling to give her what she needed.

At the end of every session, as I would be opening the window, I was wondering whether I should finally tell her about the smell. This risk-taking on my side could open a royal road for exploration of her shame; or at the very least it would push her to change her hygiene routine for the better.

But how could I? Pointing out something so potentially shameful could make her flee the therapy room and undo the work we had been doing.

Jane was mostly avoiding any situation that would expose her — such as taking on more rewarding projects at work, or physical intimacy. This constant avoidance had saved her a lot of embarrassment but had also contributed to her feeling stuck. I hoped that by facing her shame together, we could help her to develop resilience. In order to get out of the cold shower, she had to take action and change things that had made her feel bad about herself — exercise more, take better care of herself.

Jane had been an unhappy but steady user of online dating apps. The rare times she had made it out with a man had ended up with the same scenario: the man either fled after the initial drinks, or they both got drunk and had sex in her messy studio. In the latter scenario, the denouement would always be the same — she would never hear from the man again. This had been the worst and most hurtful part of it all. To be ghosted by these individuals that Jane actually despised served as a constant reminder of her unworthiness — sending her back to the cold shower.

She would get out of each dating experience wounded, and it would take her a few months to recover enough strength to give it another chance and take the risk again. No matter how many hours we spent analysing and unpacking her experience, no amount of awareness or insight seemed to help her change the flow of her lonely and unsatisfying existence.

I was still pondering about the whole body odor dilemma when Jane came to a session more deflated than usual. She crumbled into the armchair and stayed silent. I recognised her “cold shower” look. She confirmed: she had just gone through another failed attempt at dating.

“This was horrible, absolutely horrible,” she cried. My heart sunk. I felt hopeless myself and probably as defeated as her.

“What happened?”

“This… jerk told me that he was turned off by my smell.”

My first reaction was to console her, to hug her, to reassure… but I resisted the temptation. Not now. Not yet.

“This is very hurtful. I am sorry this has happened.”

Was I? Not really, as this insensitive and probably drunk stranger had done what I was unable to do. He had liberated me from this burden. Was this a therapeutic opportunity?

“Do you think this might be true?”

“What? That I was stinking?”

“Yes, that you had not showered that day?”

Jane kept silent for a while. I could see that she was divided between her childish desire to get angry and storm out of the room and the trust that we have built over the years.

“I actually had not. My shower is broken... it has been for a while. I cannot get myself to call the landlord, he hates me… I cannot deal with the plumber in French…”

Jane’s defenses crumbled all at once; her anger, her intellectual polish, and her sense of humour, everything disappeared, and what was left was the little girl struggling with shame. This feeling was terrifying but somehow, we stayed with it for the rest of the session. We sat with her humiliation together, and Jane had an opportunity to learn that I still liked her despite her body odour, that her shower could be repaired, and that we actually all smell. We were even able to finish with a laugh about us smelly creatures.

This incident became a turning point in Jane’s therapy. The insensitive but honest feedback from a failed date turned out to be an unexpected therapy gift.

We recovered slowly; after a few weeks, Jane could talk more openly about her body shame. Then, she was finally able to get jogging shoes and try to run her first mile. Eventually she started feeling better about herself and her sense of self-worth became less dependent on others. Jane seemed a little more content with her Parisian life.

I felt sad the day we said goodbye. As she had left, I automatically started opening the window… before realizing that the only smell she had left behind was one of a very light, citrusy perfume. 

File under: Musings and Reflections