NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Developing Curiosity and Self Compassion in Therapy

One of the most challenging aspects of beginning psychotherapy for many people is learning how to develop a sense of curiosity and compassion for themselves. 

Many clients begin psychotherapy with such shame and a harsh and punitive attitude towards themselves that it becomes very difficult for them to get past their negative feelings in order to heal and grow from their experiences.

Developing Curiosity and Self Compassion in Therapy

Helping clients to moderate and transform their punitive sense of self is one of the biggest challenges for a psychotherapist during the early stages of psychotherapy. Developing a sense of curiosity and self compassion is often one of the early goals of therapy so that clients can be more open to self exploration and healing.

The following vignette, as always, is a composite of many clients with no identifying information about any particular client:

Ronald began psychotherapy because he was filled with guilt, shame and self blame about his father's death.

Developing Curiosity and Self Compassion in Therapy

His father died of a sudden heart attack when Ronald was eight years old. At the time, Ronald's parents, who had a contentious relationship, weren't speaking. They often communicated with each other through Ronald, who was an only child. When they were not speaking to each other, it was not unusual for Ronald's mother or father to say to him, "Tell your father that dinner is ready if he wants to eat" or "Tell your mother that I'm going out for a walk."

At a very early age, Ronald grew up taking on an adult role between his parents. Since he was expected to fulfill a role that was far beyond his developmental capacity at such a young age, he was often filled with anxiety and guilt. He learned to be vigilant in his home environment, trying to "read" the mood between his parents, and anticipate what he could do to fulfill their needs.

One day, during one of those times when his parents weren't speaking, his mother told him to call his father to the dinner table. When Ronald went into the bedroom to get his father, his father told him that he wasn't feeling well and he needed to lie down for a while. When Ronald told his mother this, she became angry and began banging pots and pans on the stove as she complained about how unappreciative Ronald's father was about all that she did in the household.

Ronald recalled that, as a young, nervous child, he was startled and flinched with the sound of his mother's banging and complaining. He kept trying to think of what he could do to patch things up between his parents, but he couldn't think of anything, and he blamed himself for the unhappy state of affairs at home.

Later that evening after Ronald went to sleep, he was startled to hear a commotion in his parents' room. At first, he thought they were arguing again and he put the pillow over his ears to drown out the sound. But then he realized that something else was going on. As he got out of bed, he heard the voices and footsteps of several people rushing around the apartment. When he opened the door to his bedroom, Ronald was shocked to see his father, looking pale as a ghost, being carried out of the apartment by emergency medical technicians and placed in an ambulance.

Then, Ronald heard his mother sobbing in the other bedroom. When he ran into the room to see her, she told him, "Your father is dead. You're the man of the house now, Ronald."

When Ronald recounted this traumatic event in therapy, even though he was in his early 40s, he experienced the sadness, self blame, guilt and shame as if it was yesterday. He also re-experienced his mother's words as a heavy mantle that was placed on his shoulders that he always carried with him.

As an adult, Ronald understood intellectually that he was only eight when his father died and that there was nothing that he could have done to save him. But there was such a disconnect between what he knew rationally versus what he felt emotionally.

Developing Curiosity and Self Compassion in Therapy

He carried this heavy emotional burden with him so that it affected almost all of his close relationships. He was often the one that his family and friends turned to about their problems. But having grown up as a parentified child, he felt so undeserving himself that he never confided in anyone about his own problems.

In many ways, it was surprising that Ronald came to therapy at all. It was only after he began re-experiencing overwhelming anxiety around the anniversary of his father's death that Ronald even considered getting help for himself.

During the early stages of psychotherapy, Ronald and I worked together to help him develop a sense of curiosity and self compassion. At first, this was very difficult for him. He was filled with emotions about what he "should have done" and "could have done" to save his father.

He blamed himself for not calling the doctor when his father told him that he wasn't feeling well. He blamed himself for being asleep when his father had the heart attack and died. He also blamed himself for not being able to console his mother after the father's death.

Ronald's own sense of loss for himself after his father's death was suppressed, buried underneath all the negative feelings that he had for himself. The weight of those feelings was often palpable in the therapy room.

Talking about it did little good. Ronald would often say that, as an adult, he could look back now and see that there was nothing that an eight year old child could have done. But that intellectual insight did nothing to ease his emotional burden.

Using clinical hypnosis, Ronald and I worked to help him to access that younger part of himself that was the repository for much of his emotional pain. Slowly, over time, Ronald began to let go of his negative feelings so that he could develop more self compassion and a sense of curiosity about what happened to him.

Once he was able to develop self compassion and curiosity, the healing began. His intellectual insight developed into deeper emotional insight, and he forgave himself and his parents. For the first time, he mourned his father's death. He also mourned for that younger part of himself for what he didn't get emotionally as a child.

Freed from this emotional burden, Ronald was able to open up to a fuller and richer life. Although he maintained a sense of compassion and altruism for others, he no longer felt that he had to "fix" them or resolve their problems.

Developing Curiosity and Self Compassion in Therapy

I often hear people say that they don't understand how psychotherapy can help them because they "already know" what their problems are and what they should be doing to resolve them. It's often difficult for people who are not in therapy to understand that intellectual insight is not the same as emotional insight and it's often not enough to integrate trauma and create healing and transformation.

Regular talk therapy, although very useful in many situations, often is not enough when trying to work through trauma. Talking about a traumatic incident, where talk remains intellectual, is often not the same as working towards healing and integration through a mind-body oriented psychotherapy like clinical hypnosis or EMDR.

Many clients, who go from one form of talk therapy to another, come away with important intellectual insights about their problems, but they're not healed. Nothing really changes.

As a psychodynamically trained psychotherapist, I value the psychodynamic talk therapy process for many issues that clients bring to therapy and it informs my work. But I also know that regular talk therapy is often not enough and it's important for psychotherapists to have a variety of tools to use with their clients.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you are struggling with a traumatic event in your life, it's important to get professional help with a licensed psychotherapist who has experience working with trauma.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome trauma so they can lead more fulfilling lives.

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

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.