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Saturday, May 19, 2018

As an Adult Child, Trying to Decide Whether to Salvage Your Relationship With Your Parents

In my previous article, Now That You're An Adult, Your Parents Have Changed Into the Parents You Wanted As a Child, I began a discussion about the experiences of adult children whose parents were abusive when they were younger but who changed into the parents that these children wanted all along since childhood.  In this issue, I'm focusing on a decision that many adult children are faced with--whether to try to salvage their relationship with their parents (see my articles: Ambivalence and Codependency in Mother-Daughter RelationshipsGetting Help in Mother-Adult Daughter Therapy, and Deciding Whether or Not to Reconcile Your Relationship With Your Father).

As An Adult Child, Trying to Decide Whether to Salvage Your Relationship With Your Parents

Why Do Adult Children Become Estranged From Their Parents?
Deciding whether to try to salvage a relationship with one or both parents isn't easy, and many adults seek help in psychotherapy to grapple with this issue.  There's no one answer that will suit everyone, and each person will have to decide what's best for him or herself and family members.

From the adult children's perspective, there are many different reasons why they and their parents become estranged.

Most of the time adult clients in psychotherapy indicate that the estrangement developed due to physical abuse or neglect from childhood (see my articles: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect? and What is the Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Problems Later On In Adult Relationships).

In order to take care of themselves emotionally and physically, these adult children made a decision to part ways with their parents because there was no way to continue to have a relationship without it being harmful to them.

Often this type of estrangement occurs gradually over time. But if even limited contact with parents is still hurtful, these adult children might cut back even further in terms of contact--until, in some cases, there is no contact.

For most adult children this is an agonizing decision to make.  It might not start out being a decision to end all contact but, as time goes on and neither the adult child nor the parents reach out, it can develop into complete estrangement with little incentive to reach out.

The Problem With Cultural Myths About All Parents Always Being Loving
Aside from the emotional difficulty with reducing or eliminating contact with parents, adult children are often stigmatized for having less or no contact with parents due to cultural myths.

These cultural myths are all around us and perpetuated in songs, stories, movies, and Mother's Day and Father's Day cards:  All parents, especially mothers, are presumed to be loving, nurturing and self sacrificing towards their children.

While there are many loving and nurturing parents, by no means are all parents loving and nurturing. There are families where one or both parents are emotionally and physically abusive behind closed doors where no one, except the children, see and experience what's going on (see my article: Breaking the Family Code of Silence in Dysfunctional Families).

Cultural myths about all parents being loving makes it that much more guilt and shame producing for adult children to make decisions about reducing or eliminating contact with their parents.

In many cases, these adult children are stigmatized by well-meaning others who need to believe in the cultural myth.  In some cases, these same people are in denial about their own families and haven't dealt with their own ambivalence about their parents.

Many clients in psychotherapy tell their psychotherapists that when they decided to reduce or eliminate contact with one or both parents, other family members, friends and acquaintances didn't understand how these adult children could "do this to the parents."

There is often an implicit message that if adult children are reducing and eliminating contact with their parents, the problem must somehow be the adult child's fault.  These adult children might hear others say, "But their your parents.  How can you cut them off" or "You know your parents did the best they could at the time" or other platitudes.

I think that people who say these things often don't realize how damaging these statements are to the adult children, especially for adult children who might have grown up feeling emotionally invisible to  their parents and others (see my article: Growing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated).

When they have to also endure others' scorn for taking care of themselves, this can make their decision-making process that much more lonely, and it can continue to make them feel invisible and undeserving of self care (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

Rather than trying to guilt or shame adult children for taking care of themselves, it would be much more helpful for others to realize that they might not have the whole story and to use empathy and understanding before making judgments.

Obstacles For Adult Children to Salvaging a Relationship With Parents 
The obstacles to salvaging a relationship with one or both parents can be formidable, including (but not limited to):
  • Parents' Denial, Lack of Acknowledgement and Refusal to Take Responsibility For Abuse: Chances of salvaging a relationship between adult children and parents are usually better if the parents can acknowledge and try to make amends for a history of abusing or neglecting the child.  Although they can't change the past, if parents can take responsibility and they are sincere about their remorse, this makes it somewhat easier for the parents and adult child to try to develop a better relationship.  It doesn't erase the past, but it provides a basis for reconciliation for many people.  But when parents either deny or minimize the abuse ("That happened a long time ago.  You should be over it by now"), this can be a major obstacle to a reconciliation.
  • Ongoing Abuse or Manipulation:  When one or both parents continue to be abusive with an adult child, this is a major obstacle to salvaging the parent-adult child relationship.  The adult child must decide if it's better to try to have some form of relationship rather than none.  If the abuse or manipulation continues, it makes it that much more difficult to sustain a relationship.
  • The Adult Child's Relationship With Parents Is Beyond Repair:  In some cases, the relationship between adult children and their parents is so damaged that it is beyond reconciliation.  This can include a history or the ongoing perpetuation of severe forms of abuse, including (but not limited to)  sexual or physical abuse. Where there is no hope of change and maintaining a relationship with parents would only mean continued abuse, adult children often have no choice but to abandon any hope of having a healthy relationship with one or both parents.  
Developing a Compromise to Maintain a Relationship With Parents (if possible)
The bond between most parents and children is strong and, even in cases where the actual bond isn't strong, there is often a wish for repair on both sides in order to develop a stronger bond.

Finding the compromise that works for everyone involved can be challenging, especially if parents are in denial or refuse to take responsibility for or minimize a history of abuse when their adult children were younger.

Sometimes, adult children decide to have limited contact with their parents on holidays and birthday.  Other times, adult children move to another part of the country and try to maintain some telephone contact.  This can be a trial and error process with both sides discovering what works for everyone--if there, in fact, is a solution that works.

An adult child might decide that, even if it's emotionally triggering to see his or her parents occasionally, this is the lesser of two difficult situations when considering a complete cut off and limited contact.

When they see each other, there is often an unspoken agreement to avoid certain topics that would create conflict.  This might cause some regret for both parents and adult children that their relationship isn't as emotionally intimate as they wished it could be, but it's part of the compromise to maintain some contact and minimize damage.

When No Compromise is Possible
As previously mentioned, in some cases, due to numerous factors, including severe abuse or neglect or ongoing abuse, a compromise isn't possible.  This is a painful, but often necessary, decision for the health and well-being of the adult child.

As An Adult Child, Trying to Decide Whether to Salvage Your Relationship With Your Parents

Getting to this decision can be a long, painful road with many attempts at compromises along the way.

In addition to dealing with possible guilt and shame, there is grief involved because cutting off complete contact often involves giving up any hope that the relationship can be repaired and the hope of ever having a loving parental relationship at all.

This article focused on adult children, but there are also circumstances where parents have to decide whether or not to salvage their relationship with their adult children when to do so would be to perpetuate emotional and/or physical pain for them.  This decision is also usually agonizing.

From the adult child's perspective, cutting off a relationship with one or both parents is almost never taken lightly.  There is often guilt and shame involved--even when the adult child knows that to maintain a relationship would involve ongoing abuse.

Some adult children decide to compromise and maintain limited contact with parents.  Often, there is an underlying hope that, eventually, a time will come when the adult child and the parents can reconcile their relationship--even if it seems impossible at the current time.

Is maintaining hope for a full reconciliation in the future a form of denial?  There's often no way to know in the present.

For many people a complete reconciliation never happens, and they live their lives with an open emotional wound waiting for that day.

For other people, as they and their parents get older, there might be a new perspective and the possibility of a reconciliation where it never seemed possible before.

This might also involve a time when the adult children have their own children and the parents are motivated to repair the relationship because they want to be involved in their adult child's and grandchild's lives.  It might involve a parent who is very sick or close to death with a final wish for reconciliation and healing.

Getting Help in Therapy
Psychotherapy clients, who decide to have limited or no contact with parents, often work with their psychotherapists to resolve a traumatic history of abuse or neglect and work through their current decision-making process (see my article: The Benefit of Psychotherapy).

Unresolved childhood trauma often gets triggered in the present, so working with a skilled trauma therapist can help to resolve developmental trauma (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you have been struggling on your own with unresolved problems, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional who is a trauma therapist (see my article: How Trauma Therapy Can Help You to Overcome Trauma and Develop a More Accurate Sense of Self).

By working through unresolved trauma, you can free yourself from the effects of your traumatic history so you can have a chance to lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City trauma psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients with unresolved trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Now That You're An Adult, Your Parents Have Changed Into the Parents You Wanted As a Child

As a psychotherapist in New York City, I hear many adult clients tell me that they have problems reconciling who their parents were in the past to who their parents are now.

In these situations, psychotherapy clients often say something like, "My mother was so abusive when I was growing up, but now she's a sweet, kind lady. I can't believe she's the same person. I'm glad she's changed, but I'm having problems reconciling that the mother from the past is the same mother in the present.  Why wasn't she kind to me when I was a child?" (see my article: Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From An Adult Perspective).

Now That You're an Adult, Your Parents Have Changed Into the Parents You Wanted As a Child
This change often presents a dilemma for clients attending psychotherapy.  They are traumatized, they are affected in their current life by the childhood abuse.  But many of these clients also feel a sense of guilt for complaining about their parents' past behavior because their parents are no longer like that.  Not only do they experience guilt, but they also feel confused about the change.

On an intellectual level, most clients understand that people often change and who they were in the past is no longer who they are in the present.  But on an emotional level, especially if the past trauma is getting triggered in their current circumstances, it's hard to reconcile the change (see my article: Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers).

These clients often experience anger, sadness and resentment for the love and nurturing they didn't get as a child.  Many of them also express surprise to discover that their parents have changed because they never thought their parents would ever change.

In many cases, the change becomes evident when these adult clients have their own children and their parents, as grandparents, interact with their grandchildren in a much more nurturing way than they ever did with these clients when the clients were children.

This sometimes creates a dilemma for these clients because, on the one hand, they feel somewhat envious that their children are getting the love and nurturance from the clients' parents that these clients wanted for themselves as children.  But, on the other hand, even though these clients' feelings are understandable, no one wants to feel envious of their own children.

A Fictional Clinical Vignette: Your Parents Today Have Changed Into the Parents You Wanted As a Child:
The following fictional clinical vignette is typical of this issue and illustrates how psychotherapy can help:

Describing a horrific childhood with both physical abuse and neglect, Beth, who was in her 40s, told her psychotherapist that, she recently gave birth to a baby girl, Cindy.  She said that, after being estranged from her parents for many years, she and her husband were considering whether or not to contact her parents about Cindy's birth.

Beth described a traumatic childhood where she and her younger sister, Sandy, often cowered in their room when one or both parents lost their tempers and hit them with a belt.  Other times, her parents would leave them alone at home over the weekend with no food as the parents went to a resort in Upstate New York.

Beth said that neither she nor Sandy ever told anyone about the abuse or neglect because they were both too afraid of the repercussions.  As a result, they endured the abusive and neglectful behavior until they were old enough to leave the household.  Beth even delayed going to college for a year so that she and Sandy could leave the household at the same time.  She feared that if she left Sandy alone with their parents, they would unleash all their anger on her after Beth was gone.

Beth's husband, John, who had heard the horrific stories of Beth's childhood, would have preferred that Beth not contact them at all.  He feared that they might want to be involved with Cindy, and he definitely felt uncomfortable with that.  But he left the decision about contacting her parents up to Beth.

Ultimately, Beth decided to send her parents a note.  She would rather that they hear about Cindy directly from her rather than hearing it from other relatives who were still in Beth's life.

Based on their experiences with their parents, Beth and Sandy both doubted that their parents would want to be involved in Cindy's life.  So, Beth, Sandy and John were shocked when her parents wrote back that they were thrilled to hear that they were grandparents and they wanted to reconnect with Beth and Sandy and see the new baby.

At first, Beth wasn't sure what to do.  Before she contacted her parents, she knew there was a possibility that they might want to meet Cindy, but she thought of it as a very remote possibility.  She was shocked that her parents would even care enough to want to reconcile and meet Cindy.

When she talked it over with John, she understood his reluctance.  He had never met her parents and, after hearing about Beth's traumatic childhood, he hoped he would never meet them.  He was angry for the hurt that they caused Beth and Sandy.

After they talked it over and Beth discussed it in several therapy sessions with her psychotherapist, Beth and John decided to have a short visit with her parents in a nearby park rather than inviting them over to their apartment.  Sandy decided that she didn't want to see her parents, so she told Beth that she wouldn't go.

With much trepidation, Beth and John waited for Beth's parents at the area they designated in the park.  While they waited for Beth's parents to show up, they both wondered if they were making a big mistake.  But it was too late to back out at that point.

During her next psychotherapy session, Beth told her psychotherapist that she was amazed at how pleasant and nurturing her parents were with Cindy and with her and John.   Not only were they thrilled that they were now grandparents, they both said how much they missed Beth.

Afterwards, Beth was so surprised that she could hardly believe that they were the same parents who were abusive and neglectful with her and Sandy.

Her amazement was so great Beth told Sandy that when she was with their parents, for a second, she wondered if the abuse and neglect had ever happened.  She wondered: How could these be the same people?  But she was relieved that Sandy, who was also shocked to hear that their parents were pleasant, confirmed Beth's sense of reality about their childhood.

John was also surprised.  After hearing about Beth's childhood, he wasn't sure what to expect when they met for the first time.  But he wasn't expecting such a warm response from them.

Aside from needing help to reconcile her parents of today with her parents from the past, Beth also started therapy because she wanted to work on her unresolved childhood trauma.  But, after reconnecting with her parents, initially, Beth had difficulty processing the earlier trauma because she felt like her parents were such different people now, and she continued to have doubts regarding her perceptions of her childhood.

She felt a guilty complaining to her therapist about her parents when they were now behaving in such a loving and nurturing way with Cindy.  Even though Sandy confirmed her sense of what happened when they were children and she knew, on an intellectual level, what happened, there were still times, on an emotional level, when Beth felt like she might be "exaggerating" or "making a big thing out of nothing."

Beth's psychotherapist provided her with psychoeducation about how adults, who were abused and neglected as children, often have doubts about their childhood history--especially if their parents had changed.  Knowing that this was a common experience for many clients, Beth felt somewhat relieved to know that other people had similar experiences.

In addition, Beth had many mixed feelings about her parents.  She told her therapist that, when she was a child, she longed to have parents who were as loving as her parents were now to her daughter.  Although she was glad that they were able to be loving towards her daughter, she also felt a lot of grief for what she didn't get emotionally from her parents when she was a child.  She told her therapist that she was felt guilty to admit that she sometimes envied Cindy because her parents could be so loving towards Cindy.

Her psychotherapist used EMDR therapy to help Beth to process her traumatic childhood (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

The work was neither quick nor easy.  As part of her trauma work, Beth grieved for the love she didn't get as a child.

In the meantime, as Beth was resolving her childhood trauma, she and her husband were making decisions about how much contact they wanted Cindy to have with Beth's parents.

People are often amazed when parents, who were abusive to them when they were children, can now be kind and loving as grandparents.

There can be many reasons for this, including:
  • Abusive parents often mellow with age.  
  • Grandparents are usually under less pressure with their grandchildren than they were as parents.  Often, they can have a good time with their grandchildren without the stress they felt when they were rearing their own children.
  • People change, and abusive parents might have regrets about their behavior.  
  • Grandparents, who have regrets about being abusive parents, often see grandparenting as a way to make up for the abusive way they treated their own children.
Of course, every situation is different, and each person needs to make his or her own decision about whether to allow a formerly abusive parents back in his or her life.

It's also true that, even when there aren't grandchildren involved, abusive parents can change over time, and their adult children have many of the same problems reconciling the parents of the past with the current parents.

Getting Help in Therapy
Coping with a history of unresolved childhood trauma is difficult, especially when, as an adult, unresolved trauma gets triggered in the present.

Psychotherapy with a skilled trauma therapist can help you to overcome unresolved trauma, so you can free yourself from your history and live a more fulfilling life (see my articles: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I am a trauma therapist who works with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome unresolved trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Memories of Your First Love Can Have a Profound Effect on Later Relationships - Part 2

In the first article about this topic, How Memories of Your First Love Can Affect Later Relationships, I gave examples of how characters in books and movies are often affected by their experiences with their first love--in some cases to the point of obsession.  In this article, I'll provide a fictional clinical vignette, which is a composite of many psychotherapy cases with all identifying information

How Memories of Your First Love Can Affect Later Relationships

Fictional Clinical Vignette: How Memories of Your First Love Can Affect Later Relationships:
By the time Sam turned 55, he had been struggling for several years because he felt his life had lost meaning and purpose, which is why he began psychotherapy.

Sam told his psychotherapist that he was aware that he had a lot to be grateful for: He had a kind, loving wife, his adult children were doing well, he was healthy, he was successful in a career that compensated him well, and he had good friends.  But, somewhere along the way, he felt he lost his way (see my article: Is That All There Is? When Having It All Leaves You Feeling Empty and Are You Feeling Lost?).

He accomplished the goals that he set up for himself when he was younger, and he felt that his life wasn't fulfilling any more.  He had plenty of hobbies and interests, and he and his wife traveled a lot, but none of that seemed to matter any more, and he wasn't sure why (see my articles: Midlife: Transitions: Reassessing Your Life and Midlife Transitions: Living the Life You Want to Live).

When he was younger, he approached each day as a happy challenge.  He loved his wife, Sandy, and he enjoyed raising his children.  But now, married for 30 years, he and his wife lived in New York City and his adult children lived on the West Coast, so he hardly saw them.  And after he accomplished his career goals, he was no longer excited by his career.

How Memories of Your First Love Can Affect Later Relationships
He told his therapist that he could retire if they wanted to, but he felt that, in his current state of malaise, he would feel even worse if he didn't have at least the structure of his work.  He was also increasingly aware that he was aging and he had more years behind him than in front of him.  He didn't want to just continue to "drift."  He felt he needed something new and exciting, but nothing seemed to excite him.

Sam and his psychotherapist continued to explore these issues in therapy.  Then, one day, Sam came in and he seemed happier and more energetic than usual.  When his psychotherapist asked him about the difference in his demeanor, he said that his former girlfriend, Becky, from college contacted him through a social media network for former college classmates, and this brought back memories of a time when he felt happy and excited about life (see my article: Romantic Reconnections).

It also brought back memories of being head-over-heels in love in his first relationship.  Just remembering that time lifted his spirits and made him feel young again.  Then, Sam remained quiet for a few moments and when he looked up, he had a sheepish look, "I have plans to meet Becky in a few days."

From the look on Sam's face, his therapist could tell that he expected her to disapprove and tell him not to do it.  But psychotherapists usually don't tell clients what to do, so she suggested that they explore this further.

"There's nothing to explore," Sam said adamantly as he looked away, "She contacted me.  She's going to be in New York City for a few days and we decided to see each other.  We haven't seen each other in over 30 years."

His psychotherapist clarified that she wasn't telling him what to do--only he could decide what he wanted to do.  She wanted to explore with him what this former relationship meant to him, what he hoped to get out of having dinner with Becky, and how he thought it would affect his relationship with his wife.

Sam thought about these questions, and then responded, "Becky was the love of my life.  Don't get me wrong--I love my wife, Sandy, but Becky was my first love.  We lived together off campus, and we were planning to get married a few months after we graduated from college.  We got an apartment together after graduation and we were in the planning stages of our wedding when I got cold feet.  I realized that I wasn't ready and that broke Becky's heart.  Soon after that, she broke up with me and moved back home with her parents.  A couple of years later, I heard from mutual friends that she married someone else, and I was devastated.  But then, my life moved on.  I met Sandy and we eventually got married.  Over time, I lost touch with my college friends, and I never heard anything more about Becky--until now...But I never stopped thinking about her.  In a way, Becky was like a ghost that hovered around even after I got married.  I would often think about her, how things could have been between us if we had gotten married, and how different my life might have been."

Sam said he wasn't sure what he wanted from his upcoming dinner with Becky. He just felt he needed to see her.  Ever since she contacted him and they spoke on the phone while he was at work, he felt happy and invigorated.  Suddenly, life felt exciting and new.  He didn't want to forgo an opportunity to see Becky.  

When his psychotherapist asked him if his wife and Becky's husband were coming along to this dinner, Sam admitted that he hadn't mentioned the call to Sandy, and Becky told him that she was divorced and single again, "I need to do this for myself.  I don't think Sandy would understand.  I told her all about Becky when we first got together, and she knows that Becky was the love of my life.  She wouldn't be comfortable with the idea of my seeing Becky again.  Anyway, I don't plan to get romantically or sexually involved with Becky.  It's just dinner."

In response, his psychotherapist asked him why he was keeping Becky's call and the upcoming dinner a secret from Sandy if he didn't plan to get involved with Becky.  Sam responded, "That's a good question.  I think I just want this for me without anyone telling me not to do it."

Then, Sam dug his heels in, and he resisted any further exploration that his therapist attempted.   

At his next psychotherapy session, Sam told his therapist that he had dinner and drinks with Becky at her hotel and they got sexually involved that night, "I didn't mean for it to happen, but we were both drinking and, before I knew it, one thing led to another...But I'm not sorry.  I realized that, more than ever, I still have strong feelings for her and she feels the same way about me.  It was as if no time had passed.  We had a passionate sex life when we were together in the past, and it felt like we just picked up where we left off.  I've been walking on air since that night.  I feel like a new person--or like the person I used to be when I was in college."

Sam told his psychotherapist that he wasn't sure what he wanted to do, but he knew he didn't want to lose Becky again.  Becky told him that she was moving to New York City for a new job, and they agreed to continue to see each other, "She knows I'm still with my wife, so we agreed--no strings attached."

As Sam heard himself say these words, he hesitated, "I know it sounds like I'm having a cheap affair, but it's not--we really love each other.  Being with Becky brought back so many memories of when I was happy and carefree.  I don't want to hurt Sandy, but I can't give Becky up again.  I just can't..." (see my article: Love: Is It Really Better the Second Time Around?).

For the next few weeks, to the extent that he would allow it, Sam and his psychotherapist continued to explore these issues while he had the affair with Becky.  He acknowledged that if, somehow the affair came to light, he could ruin his marriage, but he didn't want to talk about that.

Instead, Sam talked excitedly about his memories with Becky when he was younger and how happy he was back then, "It was the happiest time of my life, and since I reconnected with Becky, I feel happy and alive again" (see my article: Feeling Alive Again After a Period of Stagnation).

His psychotherapist didn't doubt that Sam was in love with Becky, but she thought that Sam was in denial and trying to recapture a time in his life that was gone. She thought that Sam would normally feel guilty about cheating on his wife, but he was defensively keeping this new part of his life compartmentalized in his mind so he wouldn't feel the guilt.  She also knew that Sam would only become more defensive and possibly leave therapy prematurely if she brought this up to him (see my article: When Clients Leave Psychotherapy Prematurely).

One day, Sam came in brimming over with his new found excitement and told his therapist that he and Becky were talking about living together, so he was thinking about leaving his marriage.  He emphasized that nothing had been decided yet, but even considering this possibility was exciting to him.  

Sam was so caught up in his fantasy about living with Becky that he forgot to turn off his phone while he was in his therapy session.  When he heard the cellphone tone that he had a text message, he saw that the text was from Sandy that made him turn pale.  He showed his therapist the text message, which read, "I know about Becky.  We need to talk when you come home tonight."

Sam was very shaken up by the text from his wife.  It was as if the bubble had burst for him, "I can't believe she found out. I never wanted to hurt her.  It's like I was living in an alternate universe for a while and now my two worlds have collided."

For the first time since Sam began the affair with Becky, he could no longer compartmentalize his behavior and he expressed remorse in his therapy session for cheating on his wife.  Suddenly, he realized that he had made a terrible mistake and he didn't really want to lose his wife, "I've been so selfish.  I don't want to throw away a 30 year marriage."

When Sam came in for his next therapy session, he told his therapist that his wife found a hotel key that he forgot in his pants pocket.  This led to Sandy looking through his email and she put everything together.  They had a long talk, and Sandy told him that she wouldn't stay if he continued to see Becky.  She was deeply hurt and told him that she would only consider staying in the marriage if he agreed to go to couples therapy, which he readily agreed to do.  He also called Becky in front of Sandy and told her that they couldn't see each other any more.

During the next few months, Sam did a lot of soul searching in his individual therapy and attended couples therapy to repair the damage to his marriage and rebuild trust.  Until he was faced with the loss of Sandy, he didn't realize how much she continued to mean to him, "She's right when she says that I take her for granted.  I still love her and I don't know what I would do without her" (see my article: Rebuilding Trust After an Affair).

This led to Sam exploring more deeply in his individual therapy what was meaningful to him, and he realized that nothing was more meaningful to him than his marriage and his children, "I don't know how I lost sight of that."

He said that Becky tried to reach him a few times, but he didn't take her calls.  Eventually, he blocked her number.  He felt remorse for hurting both Sandy and Becky.  He explained that when he was thinking of leaving his wife for Becky, he really fantasized that he might do it--until he was faced with the actual demise of his marriage.

Several months later, Sam decided to retire and spend more time with his wife, who had already retired.  They talked about rekindling their relationship, and they planned to travel for several weeks. They were still attending couples therapy and trying to rebuild trust.

In his individual therapy, Sam talked about how, in the past, he felt that "something was missing in my life" and "Now I know I'm what was missing in my life."  He realized that he wasn't going to revive his life by going back to old memories or a former relationship.  He also realized that, without even knowing it, he had become emotionally disengaged from his life in the last several years, and he needed to reengage, especially in his marriage, "Maybe I needed to go through this crisis to realize that."

It's not unusual for memories of a first love to have a profound affect on subsequent relationships.  As I mentioned in my prior article, these memories, which can even affect an otherwise good current relationship, can act as a shadow on the current relationship.  It's as if the ghost of that former relationship hangs over the current relationship.

Given the powerful nature of these memories and access to social media, more people are reconnecting with former lovers, with old and new fantasies of what was and what could still be between them.

Sometimes, the reconnection can lead to a meaningful relationship after many years of separation.  This is more likely to occur if the two people don't expect to recreate exactly what they had in the past.

For other people, as in the fictional vignette above, this often leads to an extramarital affair as a way to try to recapture a sense of self from the past.  If one or both people defensively compartmentalize the affair as a separate part of each of their lives, the affair can go on for a long time without remorse.  The compartmentalization wards off guilt.

But if the affair comes to light, it can have disastrous effects for current relationships.  This often takes people out of their compartmentalized fantasies to deal with the crisis.  Where it goes from there depends on the people involved.  Sometimes, this will mean the end of one or both relationships.  Other times, the crisis can bring positive change (see my article: How a Crisis Can Open You to Positive Change).  Either way, there will be a lot to work through for everyone involved.

Getting Help in Therapy
Powerful memories of a first love can come back with an unexpected force which upends your life and your current relationship.

If you're open to it, psychotherapy can help you to explore the effect of these memories and your decision-making process before you take steps based on memories (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Although a psychotherapist can't tell you what to do, a skilled therapist can help you to understand what is going on in your inner world if you're willing to explore these issues (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you feel stuck and confused about a problem in your life, you owe it to yourself to get help in psychotherapy.  Being able to work through an unresolved problem can free you up so you can lead a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to work through unresolved problems.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Memories of Your First Love Can Have a Profound Effect on Later Relationships - Part 1

Memories of your first love can have a profound effect on subsequent relationships.  It doesn't matter how old you are or if you're happy in your current relationship or not.  Your first experience of love can leave a lasting imprint on you (see my article: The One That Got Away).

How Memories of Your First Love Can Affect Later Relationships

Books and Movies About the Lasting Effect of a First Love on Later Relationships
Since this is a common experience for many people, this theme often comes up in popular books and movies:

     Call Me By Your Name:
In the book, Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman, Elio is a 17 year old boy who falls in love with Oliver, a graduate student who comes to stay with Elio's family in their summer home in Italy for six weeks.  Throughout his life, Elio has other romantic relationships, but his first experience of love with Oliver has a profound effect on him and his subsequent relationships.

The book, which goes 20 years beyond the movie, illustrates how memories of a first love remain imprinted on the protagonist, who experiences an enduring love and a longing for Oliver throughout his life (see my articles: Call Me By Your Name - Part 1: "Is It Better to Speak or to Die?" and Call Me By Your Name - Part 2: The Concept of Parallel Lives).

     The Sense of an Ending:  
The Sense of an Ending is a book by Julian Barnes which was made into a movie.  The protagonist, Tony, has memories of his first relationship that create an obsession to find out what really happened to his first love.  He is now in his 60s, retired, divorced, and on amicable terms with his ex-wife and his adult daughter.  But he is driven by an unsolved mystery involving a memory about his first love, Veronica, and a love triangle from his early 20s.

     45 Years:
In the movie, 45 Years, memories of a first love come to haunt a husband, who is happily married to his wife for 45 years.  They are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary when he receives a letter which brings him back to his youth and his experience with his first love.  These enduring memories begin to threaten his well-being and the equilibrium of his otherwise happy marriage (see my article: An Old Secret Haunts a Happy Long Term Marriage).

     The Reader:
In the book and the movie, The Reader (book by Bernard Schlink), which take place in post-war German, 15 year old Michael meets Hanna, an enigmatic older woman.  His experiences with Hanna have a life-changing effect on him that endure long into his adulthood.  The book and the movie show how much he changes from the loving and open teenager that he was at the beginning of the story to an emotionally distant man who has superficial relationships with women--someone who is struggling to make sense of his first relationship with Hanna.

I could go on with many more examples, but these books and movies, which are part of our popular culture, illustrate how people are often changed forever by their early romantic experiences.

Memories of a First Love For Clients in Psychotherapy
As a psychotherapist in New York City, I often see clients who are still very attached to their early memories of their first love--even though they are in stable relationships.  There is something very powerful about these experiences that often take over their imagination.

And now it's relatively easy and so tantalizing to contact a first love on social media (see my article: Romantic Reconnections).

For some people, this is really more about themselves than it is about the other person.  They're remembering their youth and who they were back then.  In addition to a wish to recapture their youth,  for other people it's also about their wish to realize a fantasy of what it would be like to be in that relationship again.

Needless to say, if people allow themselves to get caught up in the fantasy, it could work out or it can have disastrous consequences when reality doesn't live up to the fantasy and a spouse leaves an otherwise happy marriage to pursue his or her first love (see my article: Relationships: The Ideal vs. the Real).

This is often a topic of discussion for many clients in psychotherapy, especially clients who are in midlife and looking back on their lives (see my articles: Midlife Transitions: Reassessing Your Life and Midlife Transitions: Living the Life You Want to Live).

In a future article, I'll continue to discuss this topic.

Memories of your first love can remain with you throughout your life.  Beyond nostalgia, these romantic memories can revive an old relationship or they can create upheaval in your life as well as the lives of your loved ones.

Many people reach out to their first love on social media in an effort to recapture what they once felt or to relive a part of their lives that has been over for a long time--often with mixed results.

Books and movies about this subject have become popular because this experience is so ubiquitous and can be all consuming.

See Part 2: Memories of Your First Love Can Have a Profound Effect on Later Relationships - Part 2

Getting Help in Therapy
Separating reality from fantasy can be difficult when you're caught up in memories of a first love from the past.

If you're struggling with these memories or the possibility of rekindling a relationship from a long time ago, you could benefit psychotherapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Although a psychotherapist won't tell you what to do, a skilled therapist can help you to work this issue through for yourself (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than struggling on your own, you can take the first step by setting up an appointment with a psychotherapist for an initial consultation.

Being able to work through these issues can help you to make important decisions and to regain a sense of well-being.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients who are struggling with midlife and other big decisions in their lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

How Reliable Are Online Reviews of Psychotherapists?

In a New York Times editorial, The Wrong Type of Talk Therapy, Keely Kolmes, Ph.D., a psychologist in California, wrote about the problems with online reviews for mental health professionals--problems that occur for both clients and psychotherapists.  Another informative article about this topic was on, 2-Star Therapist? Why Online Reviews Give Psychiatrists Anxiety).

How Reliable Are Online Reviews of Psychotherapists?
How Are Online Reviews of Psychotherapists Different From Other Consumer Reviews?
As Dr. Kolmes points out in her editorial, reviewing your plumber or the wait staff at a restaurant is different from reviewing your psychotherapist.  As an example, she says that chances are if a patron at a restaurant had to wait a long time for a meal, there were probably other patrons who experienced the same thing.  

But this isn't necessarily the case for a client's relationship with a psychotherapist.  Not only is the therapeutic relationship unique and personal, but what might not work well for one client would work very well for another.  What might annoy one client would be considered wonderful by another.  

Online Reviews of Psychotherapists and Mental Health Confidentiality Laws
As Dr. Kolmes points out, whereas plumbers and restaurant owners can respond to online reviewers, psychotherapists cannot due to confidentiality laws.  Psychotherapists are ethically and legally bound to maintain clients' confidentiality, so they cannot respond to online reviews whether they are positive or negative--even when the client provides their full name as the reviewer.  

So, anyone who reads a review of a psychotherapist online, who might not know that a therapist is not allowed to respond to the reviewer, might think that the therapist isn't interested in responding.

Reliability of Online Reviews of Psychotherapists or Other Mental Health Practitioners
Generally, there is a negativity bias with most reviews.  People are more likely to write negative reviews than positive reviews, so what appears online often isn't reflective of what most clients seeing a particular psychotherapist think of the therapist.

Also, there's often a "back story" to these reviews that online reviewers don't provide, so people who are reading the reviews often don't have the full story.

For instance, if the client came for a consultation for a particular type of therapy and the therapist assessed that the client isn't a candidate for this therapy, the reviewer might not reveal that the therapist explained the reasons and offered other services or offered to provide another referral (see my article: EMDR is a Transformative Therapy For Trauma, But There Are a Few Exceptions).

This is also true of rave reviews, which can be an over-idealization of the psychotherapist, or represent an erotic transference (see my article:  Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference: Falling "In Love" With Your Psychotherapist).

Once again, the point is--whether the review is positive or negative--it is very subjective and personal.

How Online Reviews Are Harmful to Current and Prospective Clients
Many clients who post online reviews of psychotherapists use their names on the social media site without considering that their post is now available for everyone to see--including current and future employers.

While it's true, as Dr. Kolmes points out, that anyone can erase a review, there's no telling how many people have already seen the review.  An employer who is considering hiring a job candidate and who sees a ranting review might be concerned that this person might rant about them online too.  They might also be concerned that this person might lack good judgment or have little in the way of impulse control and, as a result, they shouldn't hire him or her. 

Prospective clients who rely on online reviews of psychotherapists--whether these reviews are positive or negative--are often getting a skewed view, as I mentioned earlier.

How Online Reviews Are Harmful For Psychotherapists
Whether or not a psychotherapist has a website, most private practice professionals are listed on online sites--whether they want to be listed or not.  These sites also encourage consumers to write reviews with no guidelines for how a review of a mental health professional is different from other reviews.   

A few negative reviews, whether they are justified or not, could ruin a psychotherapist's professional reputation, and the psychotherapist has little recourse since s/he cannot respond to the review due to confidentiality laws.

Medical Doctors and Dentists Are Also Getting Online Reviews and Taking Action
Within the last few months, I looked up the addresses for my eye doctor and my dentist, two professionals that I have seen for many years.  I consider them both to be top notch, dedicated professionals who go above and beyond for their patients.  This is why I was surprised and dismayed to see negative reviews for seemingly petty issues.  

In one case, a patient gave the doctor a negative review because she didn't like the way the doctor's biller interacted with her.  Based on what she wrote, it didn't seem like a major issue, but this patient gave the doctor the negative review.  

According to Dr. Kolmes, some doctors are taking action, based on advice from an organization called Medical Justice, by asking patients to sign an agreement that the doctor has control over any Web posting mentioning their practice.  Presumably, the idea is that it would allow the doctor to respond to a patient's negative review without violating confidentiality laws.  I'm not an attorney, but whether these agreements are legal is an open question in my mind.

Other Options to Online Reviews
Legal issues aside, I could foresee many problems if psychotherapists adapted the type of agreement that some doctors are using, and even more problems if psychotherapists actually responded to negative reviews, including damaging the therapeutic relationship.

I suppose one could argue that if the client is posting negative reviews--rather than speaking to the client directly--the therapeutic relationship might already be ruined.  But if a psychotherapist responds to an online review, it would surely be the final nail in the coffin for their relationship.  

I believe that it's a good idea for psychotherapists to ask clients for feedback from time to time to find out how they are feeling about the therapy.

If clients are encouraged to provide their therapist with ongoing feedback, it might reduce the likelihood that clients will feel they have no other option but to write a review online.  They would know that their therapist wants to hear and discuss the client's feedback.  

Beyond the momentary satisfaction that a client might get from writing a negative review, it usually doesn't accomplish much for the reviewer.  Many reviewers end up regretting their negative reviews when their anger has subsided.  It also doesn't resolve the problem between the client and the therapist. 

But if the client knows that s/he can discuss problems openly, it would open up an ongoing dialogue between the client and the therapist where, unlike an online review that the therapist might or might not see, they could actually work out any problems.  

This probably won't resolve problems for people who aren't clients, for instance--people who come for a one-time appointment or a consultation and never see the therapist again.  These people aren't clients until after the consultation when they decide to work together.  But for people who are actually clients, it might be a viable solution.

How to Communicate Your Dissatisfaction With Your Psychotherapist
Unfortunately, many people don't know how to communicate when something is bothering them about their psychotherapist or in their therapy (see my articles: Asking For What You Need in Therapy and  How to Talk to Your Psychotherapy About Something That's Bothering You in Therapy).

Some people, who feel too uncomfortable communicating anything negative to their therapists leave therapy prematurely (see my article: When Clients Leave Therapy Prematurely).

But there's a real missed opportunity when people hold back communicating their dissatisfaction directly to the therapist or leave therapy without ever saying anything.  This is especially true for people who were unable to communicate anything negative when they were growing up or who were not believed.

While no one enjoys hearing negative comments, psychotherapists are trained not to take criticism personally.  Also, when the problem is resolved between the client and the therapist, this is often helpful to the work and helps improve the therapeutic relationship (see my article: Ruptures and Repairs in Psychotherapy).

Getting Recommendations For Psychotherapy From Medical Doctors or From Friends
Rather than relying on online reviews, which are often unreliable, asking their doctor or a trusted friend for a recommendation for a therapist would be better.  

Although it would not be a good idea to see the same psychotherapist that a close friend is currently seeing, you could contact a therapist that your friend saw in the past.  This is especially helpful if your friend saw this therapist over time (rather than relying on an online review from someone who saw a therapist once or twice).  Also, you know your friend and know his or her judgment about these issues.  You can also ask your friend questions.

You might also want to meet with a few psychotherapists until you find someone that you feel comfortable with over time (see my article below about how to choose a psychotherapist).

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have been trying to resolve an emotional problem on your own without success, you could benefit from seeking help in psychotherapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to work through your unresolved problems so that you can lead a more fulfilling life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

EMDR is a Transformative Therapy for Trauma, But There Are a Few Exceptions

As a trauma therapist in private practice in New York City for over 20 years, I have been using EMDR therapy regularly since 2005 with excellent results.  I have found EMDR therapy to be a powerful and transformative therapy to help clients to overcome traumatic experiences.  I've also written several articles about EMDR therapy.  See my articles:
Over the last 13 years, I have seen many clients for EMDR therapy for developmental and shock trauma.

EMDR is a Transformative Therapy For Trauma, But There Are a Few Exceptions

Clinically Assessing Clients For EMDR Therapy
As part of the initial consultation, I talk to clients about the types of trauma experiences where EMDR is effective which, fortunately, are most.  However, there are some exceptions when EMDR therapy would be contraindicated or where clients need more preparation to do EMDR, which is the focus of this article.

If a client comes to me for an initial consultation for EMDR therapy and reveals one of these contraindicated exceptions, I will discuss this with the client and will usually, if possible, provide him or her with another alternative recommendations.  If I don't do the particular alternative therapy that is needed, I usually offer to help this person to find another referral.

Although the exceptions to doing EMDR aren't many, when a client comes for a consultation and is told that EMDR therapy is contraindicated, this can be disappointing, especially since s/he may have heard about EMDR from a medical doctor, friends and the efficacy of EMDR to help resolve trauma.

But it's important for a psychotherapist who specializes in helping clients to resolve trauma to be a responsible and ethical therapist, even if the client will be disappointed and annoyed.

It's better to be honest with the client rather than go along with the client's wishes and place the client in harm's way or waste their time and money.

When is EMDR Therapy Contraindicated and When Is Additional Preparation Needed to Do EMDR?
For all EMDR therapy, after the initial consultation and a session or more to get family history, there is a preparation stage to help the client to develop the necessary internal resources and coping strategies to prepare to do EMDR.  However, there are times when EMDR is either contraindicated or additional preparation, beyond the usual, is needed.

The following is a list of the most common issues:
  • Clients Who Are Psychiatrically Unstable:  Clients, who are psychiatrically unstable, need to be stabilized first before doing EMDR therapy or almost any other type of outpatient psychotherapy.  Clients who are actively suicidal, homicidal, too emotionally fragile, or who have some other serious psychiatric condition that is causing significant emotional impairment, need a period of stabilization, and after stabilization, they will need to develop the internal resources before EMDR can be considered.  Once clients are stabilized and they have the inner resources to do trauma work (of any kind), the psychotherapist can reevaluate clients to see if EMDR therapy would be the therapy of choice.
  • Clients Who Are in An Unsafe or Unstable Home Environment:  Clients, who are in an unsafe or unstable home environment where they are being physically abused or they are the ones who are abusing a spouse or family member, are not ready to do trauma therapy.  They might need other types of help first, including but limited to:  supportive psychotherapy, domestic violence treatment, legal advocacy from an domestic violence agency, services from a child welfare agency, batterers' program and so on.  It would be irresponsible for a psychotherapist who does trauma therapy to ignore the fact that a client is in an unsafe home environment or is creating an unsafe environment.
  • Clients Who Are Actively Abusing Alcohol, Drugs or Other Addictive or Self Destructive Behavior: Clients who are actively abusing alcohol, drugs or engaging in other addictive or self destructive behavior are often not candidates for EMDR therapy until they have had a period of sobriety.  When clients are engaging in self destructive behavior as a maladaptive way of coping, chances are good that, if they began to delve into traumatic memories, they might become more symptomatic and their addictive or self destructive behavior would become worse.  This is a situation where the EMDR psychotherapist would have to evaluate on a case-by-case basis.  There are some clients in this situation who could benefit from the EMDR protocol that is specifically designed for addictive behavior (if the psychotherapist is trained in this type of EMDR).  However, even in those circumstances, the client would have to already have the necessary inner resources and there might be a significant period of preparation work before traumatic memories can be processed with EMDR.
  • Clients Who Are Unable to Engage in Dual Awareness in the Psychotherapy Session:  In order for trauma therapy to be safe and effective, clients must be able to maintain dual awareness in the therapy session.  In other words, they must be able to focus on the traumatic memory they are working on with their psychotherapist and also be aware of their here-and-now circumstances--that they are in a psychotherapist's office and not back in the traumatic situation.  So, for instance, if a client begins processing a traumatic memory with an EMDR therapist and the client plunges into the memory, she loses all consciousness of where she is, and she thinks she is actually back in that situation--rather than that she is with a psychotherapist, EMDR and other forms of trauma therapy are contraindicated.  There might be more preparatory work that needs to be done first to help the client to maintain dual awareness or, if that doesn't work, the client might not be ready for EMDR.  This might include clients who have DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) where they become highly dissociative or switch into alters or clients who get thrown into flashbacks and have no awareness of where they are.
  • Clients With Certain Eye Problems:  Clients who have certain eye problems might need clearance from their doctors in order to do EMDR.  As an alternative, the psychotherapist can use other forms of bilateral stimulation (BLS) like tappers, tapping, listening to music that alternates from one ear to the other.
  • Clients With Certain Head Injuries:  Clients who have certain head injuries might need to get medical clearance from their doctors before doing EMDR.
  • Clients Who Are Unable or Unwilling to Adhere to EMDR Therapy Recommendations and the Therapy Frame:  EMDR therapy is a weekly therapy.  There if often a lot that comes up in session and between sessions so if clients are unwilling or unable to come to weekly sessions, they should seek another type of therapy.  In general, consistency in therapy is necessary for any form of psychotherapy to be effective.
  • Clients Who are Looking For a "Quick Fix":  Although EMDR therapy tends to be faster and more effective than regular talk therapy, it's not a "quick fix." Some clients come for an initial EMDR consultation with misconceptions about EMDR.  There are a few circumstances where EMDR therapy can be effective in 10-12 sessions.  These circumstances are rare.  They usually involve shock trauma where there were no other traumatic events prior to the shock trauma.  Even when clients come to EMDR therapy thinking that they have no other underlying trauma, in the course of doing EMDR therapy other underlying traumatic experiences might arise that are related to the current presenting problem.   In those cases, it is best to work on the underlying trauma or the client could get emotionally triggered again under similar circumstances (see my article: Beyond the Band Aid Approach to Overcoming Psychological Problems).
  • Clients Who Are Engaged in Lawsuits Related to Their Trauma Should Consult With Their Lawyer First:  Clients who have a pending lawsuit are often advised by their attorneys not to do EMDR therapy before their case is settled.  There can be many reasons for this, but one of the main reasons is that if a client goes to trial after the trauma has been resolved, it might be difficult to convince a judge and/or jury that s/he was traumatized because they will not be exhibiting any traumatic symptoms.  This is more of a legal issue than a clinical issue.  However, many clients, who have lawsuits are unaware of this.  So, it's advisable to consult with your attorney first.
  • Other Clients Who Need a Significant Preparatory Phase in Therapy Before Processing Traumatic Memories:  Aside from the other conditions already discussed above about clients who would need significant preparatory work, there are other conditions that might require preparatory work and reassessment.  One example of this might be clients who are unable to identify the emotions that they are experiencing.  This is important because in EMDR clients are asked to identify the emotions that they are experiencing now with regard to their traumatic memories.  If clients are so cut off from their emotions, as part of their preparation for doing EMDR, they will need help to identify their emotions (see my article: Experiential Psychotherapy Can Facilitate Emotional Development and Developing Internal Resources and Coping Strategies).  Another example might be clients who have personality disorder traits and who are emotionally unstable.  
EMDR is an evidence-based therapy that can help clients to overcome traumatic experiences.  This includes longstanding trauma that has not responded to other forms of psychotherapy.

There are a few circumstances where EMDR therapy is either contraindicated or where preparatory work, beyond the usual preparation, must be done first in order to determine if clients can do EMDR. This is part of the psychotherapist's clinical and ethical responsibility.

An EMDR therapist continues to assess the client during the initial consultation and throughout EMDR processing for situations that might arise in the therapy where EMDR might need to be combined with other forms of therapy to be effective (e.g., Somatic Experiencing or clinical hypnosis) as part of an integrative psychotherapy.

Although I have included the most common examples of where EMDR therapy is either contraindicated or additional preparation is needed first, there might be a few other circumstances.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have been struggling with unresolved problems on your own, you could benefit from seeking help from a licensed mental health professional (see my articles: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Working through your traumatic problems could free you from history and allow you to live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Problems With Experiencing Positive Emotions: When Good Feelings Feel Bad

Problems with experiencing positive emotions, like happiness, are often related to unresolved developmental trauma (see my article: (see my articles: Developmental Trauma: Living in the Present As If It Were the Past and Are You Afraid to Allow Yourself to Feel Happy?).

Problems With Experiencing Positive Emotions: When Good Feelings Feel Bad

Why Do People Have Problems With Positive Emotions?
Although it might seem unusual for people to feel uncomfortable with positive emotions, this often occurs with adults because they have lived most of their lives experiencing so-called negative emotions, and they are usually hypervigilant about when the next traumatic experience will occur.  So, even when things are going well, they are uncomfortable and waiting for the "next shoe to drop" (see my article: Adults Who Were Traumatized As Children Are Often Afraid to Experience Their Feelings).

In  other words, negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and sadness are part of their usual experience.  This has been the norm for them.  When they have experiences where they begin to feel happy, this will usually make them feel anxious or fearful which, in turn, makes it difficult for them to experience happiness.

Not only are they be suspicious of positive emotions because they're waiting for something bad to happen, but positive emotions can also make them aware on a deep level of the emotional deprivation they experienced in the past.

So, for instance, someone who is leery of positive emotions due to unresolved trauma, might feel deep sadness when s/he gets a hug from a friend.

Although this reaction might sound counterintuitive, for the person with unresolved trauma related to childhood emotional neglect, the hug is a visceral reminder of the love and affection they didn't receive as children.  This reaction is an emotional trigger as opposed to an objective response, and it happens in an instant.  It can be confusing for both the person getting the hug and the person giving the hug.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Problems With Experiencing Positive Emotions: When Good Feelings Feel Bad
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how someone with unresolved trauma can experience positive emotions as uncomfortable due to unresolved trauma:

After entering into a new romantic relationship, Jane began psychotherapy to deal with emotions that confused her.

Jane, who was in her mid-30s, told her psychotherapist that she had never been in a relationship before.  Prior to this new relationship, she dated men briefly, but she longed to be with someone in a monogamous relationship. But since she and the man that she was dating, Dan, decided to be in an exclusive relationship, she felt anxious and sad.

Problems With Experiencing Positive Emotions: When Good Feelings Feel Bad

She explained to her therapist that Dan was a wonderful man, and he treated her well.  She had no complaints about him.  While they were dating casually, she and Dan had a good time together.  They had a lot in common, and sex was great.

But once the relationship became more emotionally intimate, Jane became anxious whenever she was about to see Dan.  Whereas sex had been wonderful before they were emotionally intimate, now sex was difficult for her.  She felt almost on the verge of panic when they made love.  Sometimes, she would have to tell him that she needed to stop.  Although he was very caring and considerate, Jane feared that if she didn't overcome her fear and anxiety, she would ruin the relationship (see my article: An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love).

Her fear and anxiety confused her.  She didn't understand why she felt these emotions now when all along she had hoped that they would become more serious.  But now that they were more serious, her emotions felt out of control.

The part that confused her the most was that whenever she would start to feel happy when she was with Dan, she would begin to feel anxious.  She couldn't understand why feeling happy would make her anxious.  It made no sense to her.

As her psychotherapist listened to her childhood history, she realized that Jane was suffering with unresolved development trauma.  Jane described a childhood of emotional neglect.  Both parents were emotionally distant and spent little time with Jane, who was an only child, and who was often lonely.

The family lived from one emotional and financial crisis to another and life was very chaotic.  They also moved around a lot, so whenever Jane made friends at school, she would have to give them up because the family moved to another state.

Jane had never been in therapy before.  Throughout her life, she overcame many obstacles, and she obtained a college degree with no encouragement or financial help from her parents.  She was also successful in her career.

She had lots of friends, but the one thing that she had always felt she was missing in her life was a relationship.  Aside from wanting the companionship, Jane also wanted to have children, and she was very aware of her age and the possibility that if she waited much longer to have children, she might not be able to have them.

Jane's psychotherapist provided her with psychoeducation about developmental trauma.  She also recommended that they work on helping her to manage her here-and-now problems as well as working on the root of her problem, which was her childhood emotional neglect.

To help Jane manage her current anxiety related to her fear of positive feelings and emotional intimacy, they used Somatic Experiencing.  Using a current memory of a time when she became fearful when she was with Dan, her psychotherapist worked in a gentle way that felt manageable to Jane to help her to calm herself.

Her therapist helped Jane to become aware of the parts of her body that became anxious (her throat and stomach) and the parts of her body that felt calm (her legs).  Using the mind-body connection and visualization, Jane imagined a very slow transfer of energy--one molecule at a time--from her legs to her throat and stomach (see my article: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

Over time, Jane became adept at using visualization to transfer the sense of calmness to the anxious parts of her body, and she was amazed that she could do this.

After Jane learned to do this on her own, she and her psychotherapist did Ego States therapy where Jane imagined that she was working with her "inner child" to provide love and affection to the younger part of herself that was emotionally neglected.

This was more challenging for Jane.  By doing this work, she realized that a part of her felt that she was unlovable and she didn't deserve to have love and affection.  They had to work for many months for Jane to overcome the feeling of being unlovable (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

After Jane was able to feel she was deserving of love, she and her psychotherapist used EMDR therapy to work on her unresolved childhood trauma, which also involved months of therapy (see my article: How EMDR Works: EMDR Therapy and the Brain).

Although the work was difficult, Jane came regularly and she stuck with it because she wanted to have a healthy relationship with Dan.  Even though she had not completed therapy yet, along the way, Jane was making progress and she was feeling more comfortable with positive emotions and the emotional intimacy in her relationship with Dan.

By the time she completed psychotherapy, Jane felt she was a lovable person and she deserved to be happy.  She had also worked through her history of trauma, and she was also able to tolerate positive emotions in her relationship. She and Dan were also getting closer, and she had no problems with this.

Problems with positive emotions are often the result of unresolved developmental trauma.

Along with the fear of positive emotions, many people are also afraid of emotional intimacy, which makes them feel emotionally vulnerable.

Trauma therapy, like Somatic Experiencing and EMDR therapy can help to resolve developmental trauma.  Ego States therapy (also called Parts Work) is also helpful to be able to work with parts of the self that are fearful.

Getting Help in Therapy
Many people who have experienced childhood trauma have problems experiencing positive emotions.

Rather than living your entire life struggling with this fear, you owe it to yourself to get help in trauma therapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled trauma therapist can help you to overcome your fear so that you can live a more fulfilling life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and Ego States therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and one of my specialties is helping clients to overcome trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.