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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Developing Realistic Expectations About Your Family of Origin

In my prior articles, What is Childhood Emotional Neglect? and What is the Connection Between Childhood Emotional Neglect and Problems in Adult Relationships, I discuss "emotional neglect" and how unmet childhood needs often cause problems for adults.  In this article, I'll be focusing on how adults, who had unmet childhood emotional needs, often have unrealistic expectations about their family of origin, and how therapy can help them to develop more realistic expectations and heal emotionally.

Developing Realistic Expectations About Your Family of Origin:  Mother and Daughter

The Effect of Unmet Child Emotional Needs
As I mentioned in my earlier articles, without help in therapy, unmet emotional needs from childhood usually carry over into adulthood.

If they haven't worked this issue out in therapy, most people are unaware of the effect of these unmet needs.   They're also usually unaware of how they might still hold out hope that their parents or siblings might change and, finally, give them the love and nurturing they didn't give them when they were children.

From a psychotherapist's point of view, this makes psychological sense:  Just because someone is an adult doesn't mean that s/he doesn't still carry that strong wish to finally get what was their birth right as a child.

As most people would agree, every child deserves to be loved and nurtured.

Of course, there's no such thing as a "perfect family" and every parent makes mistakes.  Fortunately, parents don't have to be "perfect."

Due to most children's inherent resilience, parents just need to be "good enough" to provide their children with the a relatively stable, loving home.

But, as we know, for a variety of reasons, this doesn't always happen in every family, especially in families that are chaotic or dysfunctional.  Among the many reasons for this is that, often, the parents of these children weren't nurtured themselves, so they don't know how to nurture their own children.

Whatever the underlying cause might be, unless there are mitigating factors, children who have significant unmet emotional needs usually grow with these same needs.

Developing Realistic Expectations About Your Family of Origin: Mother and Daughter

This doesn't mean that someone who grew up under these circumstances is doomed for the rest of his or her life to be emotionally unfulfilled.  On the contrary, people often find nurturing friendships and romantic relationships if they're discerning and choose healthy relationships.  These relationships help to mitigate what they didn't get when they were children.

Also, there are times when parents and siblings, who were once unloving, can and do change so that familial relationships can be repaired.

But this isn't always the case:  Many people who lived in an unloving family environment continue to perpetuate this in their relationships by choosing unhealthy friendships and relationships, and parents and siblings often don't change, especially if they haven't worked out their personal issues in therapy (see my articles:  Falling In Love With "Mr. Wrong" Over and Over Again, The Connection Between Obsessive Love as an Adult and Unmet Childhood Emotional Needs, Letting Go of Unhealthy Relationships and Choosing Healthier Romantic Relationships).

What Happens When Family Members Don't Change to Become Who You Want Them to Be?
When dysfunctional family relationships don't change, the person who grew up feeling unloved can still yearn to gain the love s/he never got from the family.  In many cases, people in these circumstances still hope, against all odds, that they can change a parent or sibling(s).

Developing Realistic Expectations About Your Family of Origin: Sisters
Does this mean that they should stop trying to repair their family relationships?  No, not necessarily.  After all, people do repair family relationships later in life all the time.

Developing Realistic Expectations About Your Family of Origin:  Brothers

The problem arises when someone doesn't accept the reality of the current situation and continues to have unrealistic expectations of his or her family, even after repeated attempts to change the family dynamic.

Unrealistic Expectations Are Often Unconscious
The person in this situation often doesn't even realize that s/he has unrealistic expectations because this yearning can be unconscious.

Unrealistic Expectations of Family Members Are Often Unconscious:  Father and Son

So, how do these unconscious, unrealistic expectations come to light?

In many cases, these expectations come to light when someone airs his or her grievances about family members.

S/he might say something like, "Can you believe that my dad let me down again?" or "After all that I've done for my sister, she still won't do even this small favor for me?" or "Why is my mom still nasty to me on the phone?"

A close empathic friend might commiserate with this person about the unfairness of the situation.  Anyone would agree that it's disappointing to be hurt or let down by a family member, especially if there's a lifelong history of this.

But an attuned psychotherapist will hear something more.

An Empathically Attuned Psychotherapist Hears the Underlying Unconscious Wish
A psychotherapist also will hear something more, which is the underlying issue that the client, who has lived all of his or her life being disappointed by family members, seems to still expect different behavior from family members who have been consistently disappointing (see my article:  The Psychotherapist's Empathic Attunement to Unconscious Communication in the Therapy Session).

An Empathically Attuned Psychotherapist Hears the Underlying Unconscious Wish

Many therapists, who do ego states therapy, will also realize that there is an aspect of this client's personality, usually the child self with unmet emotional needs, who is still hurt and continues to have unrealistic expectations.

Ego States Therapy and the Inner Child (or Child Aspect of the Adult)
This type of therapy is called ego states therapy because it recognizes that we all have many different aspects of self, and certain situations elicit different aspects.

So, even though someone is an adult, s/he can still experience a situation, in part, as his or her child self (see my article:  Untreated Emotional Trauma is a Serious Issue: Overcoming an Impasse in Trauma Therapy for an explanation of ego states therapy).

Ego States Therapy and the Inner Child

As I've mentioned in other articles, ego states therapy (as called "parts work") has nothing to do with multiply personalities or dissociative identity disorder.

These different aspects of self are a part of everyone, but most people don't recognize this because these aspects often remain just under the surface.

Therapists who are trained in ego state therapy are attuned to the various states that come to the surface in therapy sessions.

So that if I hear a client, who came from a chaotic and unloving environment as a child tell me, as an adult, that "it's unfair" that a parent or sibling is continuing to behave in the same dysfunctional way he or she always has, I listen to see if there is a child state under the surface that needs psychological help.

Listening to a client in this way helps therapists to be more attuned and empathic to what's going on with the client.  Equally important, it alerts the ego state therapist that the client needs psychoeducation about ego states and the child state needs to be treated.

Due to the popularity and accessibility of John Bradshaw's books (Healing the Shame That Binds You and Healing the Child Within), many people know about their "inner child."  His books have provided much-needed psychoeducation for people who grew up in unloving dysfunctional homes.

So, whether we call this aspect of self the "inner child" or the child aspect of self, we're talking about the same phenomenon.

Over the years, I've had many clients who have told me that these books have helped them to understand their shame, emotional longing and family dynamics.  Knowing that this is a phenomenon that is experienced by many people helps to normalize how they feel and helps to decrease their shame.

Mind-Body Oriented Psychotherapy and the Unconscious Mind
As I've mentioned in other articles, often regular talk therapy isn't enough to heal certain emotional problems.  Clients might gain an intellectual understanding about the issue, but talk therapy might not be enough to actually change the problem on an emotional level (see my article:  When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough).

In my article, Mind-Body Psychotherapy: The Body is a Window Into the Unconscious Mind, I explain how certain experiential mind-body oriented types of therapy, like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis help to resolve psychological problems when talk therapy might not be adequate.

Ego states therapy, which explores and heals the various states, including the child state, can be used in combination with any of the experiential types of therapy.

Mind-Body Psychotherapy:  The Body is a Window Into the Unconscious Mind

Although there are no quick fixes, experiential mind-body oriented therapy can often help with psychological healing much faster than regular talk therapy.

As I usually like to point out, I am psychoanalytically trained and I have seen the value of both psychodynamic and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  But I also know that every therapy has certain limitations.

The limitation with CBT talk therapy is that CBT often stays on the surface without a transformative  effect for the client.  And psychoanalysis or psychodynamic psychotherapy can be transformative, but it can also take a long time (see my article:  Experiential Therapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

There are many ways that experiential mind-body oriented psychotherapy, like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis and ego states therapy can help when an adult has a child aspect that, understandably, wants a parent or sibling to be different (see my articles:  What is EMDR?How Does EMDR Work - Part 1How Does EMDR Work - Part 2,  Overcoming Emotional Trauma With Somatic Experiencing,  Somatic Experiencing: Overcoming the Freeze Response and Clinical Hypnosis and Hypnoprojectives to Overcome Emotional Problems).

Getting Help in Therapy
It can be very hurtful and frustrating to hold to hope against all odds that a family member will change to be the attuned, loving person that you want him or her to be.

Letting go of these types of unrealistic expectations can be very difficult without doing work in therapy to heal the child self in you that still yearns to be loved and nurtured.

Getting Help in Therapy

In my experience as a psychotherapist, a mind-body oriented therapy is usually the best type of therapy to help with this healing process.

Rather than continuing to suffer with unrealistic expectations from family members who show no signs of changing, the best course of action is to focus on yourself and heal the emotional wounds that are keeping you stuck.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, ego states and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works 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.

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