NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 25, 2016

Freeing Yourself From Family Expectations and Beliefs That Are Harmful to You

Many families have longstanding beliefs and expectations that are passed on from one generation to the next.  When they work well, these dynamics can create a nurturing family bond and a sense of well-being.  But some beliefs and expectations can be detrimental to your well-being.  They can also be the unconscious source of your unhappiness (see my article: How Your Unconscious Beliefs Affect Your Sense of Reality).

Freeing Yourself From Family Expectations That Are Harmful to You

Often, there is a perception that some of these expectations might have worked well for earlier generations, and it is usually assumed, especially by older family members, that the younger generation will continue to maintain them.

Even when these family expectations haven't worked well, it's often not addressed for fear of upsetting the family "apple cart."

Under those circumstances, it becomes part of the "family myth" that the expectations and beliefs are healthy and everyone is satisfied with them (even when they're not, but they're too afraid to say it).

Examples of possible beliefs and expectations that become part of the family legacy and that are unhealthy are:
  • Family members should never talk about family matters outside of the family.
  • Family members always take care of older family members (this is usually an expectation of the daughters in the family).
  • Family members never move far away geographically from their parents and grandparents.
  • Family members shouldn't succeed beyond their parents' success.
  • Family members should never change their religion or faith of origin
  • Family members should never question longstanding family beliefs and expectations.
  • Children, even adult children, should know that their parents know what's best and they should never go against their parents' beliefs.
And so on.

The reason why not going along with these expectations can be so challenging is that family members, who are invested in maintaining them, often don't understand why certain individuals balk at them.  They feel threatened and feel the well-being of the family is threatened by individuals who refuse to perpetuate these dynamics or who even question them.

An even more challenging problem is that individuals who feel burdened by these expectations are often unaware that these dynamics are making them unhappy.  Often, they come into therapy with a sense that they are under a lot of "stress," but they don't understand why they're under stress.

On their own, they're unable to pinpoint the source of what's making them unhappy.  This is where therapy with a therapist who works experientially can be helpful (see my article:  Experiential Therapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).  Experiential therapy helps clients in therapy to have a "felt sense" of the underlying issues and helps to achieve psychological breakthroughs.

Let's take a look at a fictional vignette, which is common for many people who come to therapy, and illustrates these points:  

Mary, who was in her 50s, came to therapy because she was under a lot of "stress" as mother's primary caregiver.

Mary wasn't sleeping well, so she asked her therapist to help her to manage her stress.

Freeing Yourself From Family Expectations That Are Harmful to You

As she described a typical day, Mary told her therapist about how she gets up early in the morning to dress and feed her mother while they waited for the mother's home attendant to come.

She talked about how she checked in with her mother by phone several times a day and listened to her mother complain about the home attendant.  This was the fourth home attendant that they had in six months, and Mary feared that the agency wouldn't send anyone else because her mother kept finding faults with all of them.

Mary sensed that her mother was angry with her for leaving her with a home attendant, but neither she nor her husband could afford to quit their jobs to stay home with Mary's mother.

When she got home, her mother often barely spoke to her.  Mary would try to engage her mother in conversation to cheer her up, but her mother ignored her and watched TV instead.  This was frustrating and hurtful for Mary.

During those days when she knew her mother was annoyed and not talking to her, she would make her mother's favorite meals, but her mother would complain about the food and refuse to eat.

Getting her mother ready for bed was frustrating, especially if her mother was in a bad mood.

By the next morning, Mary was exhausted. She was often late for work and when she got there, she could barely hold her eyes open at work.  She worried that she might eventually lose her job if she didn't start getting to work on time and she wasn't more alert at work.

Her husband, who was usually a patient man, was also annoyed because he felt that Mary's mother was  taking advantage of Mary.   He was also sleep deprived.

He asked Mary to talk to her brothers about sharing the responsibility of taking care of the mother, so they could get a break.  They hadn't had a vacation since Mary's mother moved in with them four years ago.

Although she sympathized with her husband, Mary felt, for some reason she didn't understand, that she couldn't ask her brothers to help out.  So, she often felt caught between her mother and her husband, which added to her "stress" (see my article: Feeling Caught Between Your Spouse and Your Mother).

Her mother's doctor told Mary that the mother's medical condition was progressive and the time would soon come when she wouldn't be able to manage her mother's care at home.  He told her that she should start looking into skilled nursing facilities for her mother and see an elder care attorney to advise her about finances.

But Mary wouldn't even consider putting her mother in a nursing home.  She knew that her mother's medical problems would become worse and that her mother might need skilled medical interventions that neither she nor a home attendant could provide.  But she thought that they would find a way to deal with it (although she didn't know how).

Her husband understood that Mary didn't want to place her mother in a nursing home but, based on what the mother's doctor said, it seemed like there wouldn't be a choice.  He tried to reason with Mary about it, but just thinking about this gave Mary a headache and she refused to talk about it.

After they had established a good therapeutic relationship, Mary's therapist tried to explore with Mary what all of this meant to her, but Mary didn't know.  She just knew that the "stress" was becoming unbearable and she needed "tools" for dealing with it.

Although it was clear that Mary was under a lot of stress, it was also clear to her therapist that there was a lot more going on for Mary than she realized.

Since Mary was unable to consciously identify how it made her feel when the therapist asked her about it, the therapist tried a different approach to try to discover the unconscious meaning for Mary.

She used a technique that is often used in clinical hypnosis as well as in other types of experiential therapy called the Affect Bridge (see my article:  What is the Affect Bridge?).

Her therapist asked Mary to close her eyes, focus on her emotions and notice where she felt them in her body when she thought about the possibility of having to place her mother in a skilled nursing facility.

Using the Affect Bridge in Therapy

Her therapist was careful to say that this wasn't a practice run for actually doing this--Mary was just using her imagination to discover what was going on unconsciously that she wasn't aware of consciously.

By this time, Mary had been coming to therapy for a while, and she felt safe with her therapist (see my article:  The Creation of the Holding Environment in Therapy).

Mary allowed herself to notice her emotions, which she identified as sadness, fear and guilt.  She felt these emotions acutely around her eyes, her throat, her chest and her upper stomach.

Then, Mary's therapist asked her to focus on these emotions and go back to her earliest memory of feeling this way.

In a relaxed state, Mary allowed her mind to float back.

Then, a memory that Mary had not thought about for many years popped into her mind:  She was a young girl of about 10 and she was sitting with her mother and maternal grandmother.  By that time, Mary's grandmother was in her 90s and she was in poor health.  She lived with Mary and her family. Mary's mother, who stayed home while the father worked, was the grandmother's primary caregiver.

Mary remembered that her grandmother being in bed with her eyes closed.  Mary knew that her grandmother, who had been very sick for a long time and in a lot of pain, refused to get medical help.  She only wanted to stay at home with the family.

At one point, her grandmother opened her eyes and told Mary, "When you grow up, you'll be the one who takes care of your mother when she's older.  We're not one of those families who throw their older relatives into a nursing home.  Don't ever forget:  It will be your duty as a daughter.  Promise me that you'll never forget."

Mary remembered that she was so stunned by her grandmother's words that she was speechless.  She didn't know what to say.  She saw how exhausted her mother was from taking care of her grandmother, but she took care of her without complaining and without asking other family members for help.  It was understood that as the oldest daughter, she was expected to assume this duty.

Even though her grandmother was fragile and weak, when Mary didn't respond immediately, she opened her eyes wide, peered at Mary and said forcefully, "Promise me!"

Without thinking, Mary promised.  A few weeks later, her grandmother died and the family was plunged into grief.

During the funeral, relatives came to pay their respect to Mary's mother, and they told her what a "wonderful daughter" she had been to take care of her mother and how "strong" she was to never ask anyone, not even her brothers, for help.  They respected her for this and this made Mary's mother beam with pride.

Then, her mother turned to Mary and told her, "When the time comes, you'll take care of me just like I'm taking care of you now.  When I get older, don't ever put me in a nursing home--no matter what.  Promise me."  Mary swallowed hard and promised.

At the time, Mary felt the emotional burden of her mother's words--sadness, fear as well and guilt--because she felt trapped by this promise.

Afterwards, as Mary talked with her therapist about the memories that came up during the Affect Bridge, she was surprised because she had not thought of these memories in many years.

Her therapist asked her to complete this sentence by saying the first thing that came to her mind, "If I don't take care of my mother at home, then…"

Without thinking, Mary immediately said, "If I don't take care of my mother at home, then I'll be going back on my promise and I'll be a bad daughter."

This was the first time that Mary had become aware of what it would mean to her if she couldn't take care of her mother and just how powerful these feelings were.

Although she felt upset, she was also relieved to be able to get to the underlying feelings.  Even though she wasn't happy about it, it suddenly made sense to her.

Discovering the underlying feelings allowed Mary and her therapist to explore these deeply rooted beliefs and expectations in her family--going back generations--and how Mary had internalized them.

As they continued to work on this issue, Mary realized that not only would she feel like a "bad daughter," she would also feel like a "bad person," and everyone would know that she was a "bad person."  This made her feel deeply ashamed.

As time went on, Mary remembered more about her mother's reactions to taking care of Mary's grandmother.  She remembered times when her mother looked angry and resentful, even though she never expressed it.  It seemed to Mary that her mother might not have even realized how she felt because she probably didn't even allow herself to know it--let alone tell anyone else.

As an adult, Mary now realized that her mother was too afraid back then to even talk to the grandmother about getting medical care.

Then, Mary wondered if her grandmother might have lived longer if her mother had, at least, had the conversation with the grandmother about it.  But, instead, her mother and grandmother adhered to these rigid family "rules" and expectations ("The mother knows best" and "Don't question your mother"). This stifled any real communication between them and contributed to the grandmother's demise.

At that point, it suddenly became very clear to Mary: She was headed down the same path as her mother because she felt compelled to keep a promise that she made as a child that she would soon no longer be able to keep.

That realization brought Mary emotional pain on many levels:  She knew she would have to struggle with her feelings of being a bad daughter and a bad person.  She also knew how much she dreaded disappointing her mother.

But she also knew that she had to be responsible and, when the time came that she could no longer manage her mother at home, she couldn't just allow her mother to die at home when she could get medical help at a skilled nursing facility.

This is a very difficult decision that many adult children have to face, but it's especially difficult when there are unhealthy family expectations and beliefs that adult children have internalized from a young age.

Over time, Mary dealt with the younger aspect of herself (also known as the "inner child") in therapy that feared her mother's reaction.

Rather than coming from the perspective of the young child, she assumed the perspective of the adult.  She also worked in therapy to soothe her inner child.

Gradually, she got more information from her mother's doctor and explored various skilled nursing home facilities.

She also spoke to her brothers about taking their mother in for a couple of weeks each month to give Mary and her husband a respite.

At first, the brothers were surprised that Mary was asking for help.  They saw her as their older sister who seemed invincible to them since they were children.  But they also understood that she and her husband needed a break, so they began to help out.

A year later, Mary's mother's health took a turn for the worse and she needed the kind of medical help that she could only get from a skilled nursing facility.  At that point, even her mother realized that she could not stay at home any longer.

By that time, Mary and her mother had visited various nursing homes, and they had already chosen a facility close to home that had a very good reputation.  She had already had a consultation with an elder care attorney and had arranged the mother's finances so that she could go to the facility.  In addition, she made the necessary legal arrangements so that she could make decisions on her mother's behalf.

Over time, Mary developed increased confidence that, from an objective adult perspective, she was doing what was best for her mother.

Freeing Yourself From Unhealthy Family Expectations That Are Harmful to You

Although she felt sad about the worsening of her mother's health, she no longer felt driven by the unconscious emotions that were part of her family legacy and that she had internalized as a young girl.  This helped her to make the decisions that she had to make with clarity.

Her mother also got the medical help that she needed at the skilled nursing facility and made friends among the other patients.

The fictionalized vignette described above is a common experience for many people.

This scenario demonstrates how family expectations become part of the family legacy from one generation to the next and how individual family members internalize these expectations without even realizing it.

Working in therapy with a therapist who does experiential therapy, like clinical hypnosis, EMDR or Somatic Experiencing, can allow clients to discover the unconscious beliefs and expectations.  It can also lead to emotional breakthroughs.

Although it might not be easy, once you've discovered these underlying emotions, you can free yourself from a burdensome history.

Getting Help in Therapy
As I mentioned before, a common family belief is that family members shouldn't talk about family matters to anyone outside the family (see my article: Why Is It That It's Usually the Healthiest Person in a Dysfunctional Family That Seeks Help in Therapy?).

The belief that people shouldn't speak about family matters outside the family has hindered many people from getting the help that they need.

If you feel overwhelmed by family expectations and beliefs, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who has experience in this area.

Freeing yourself from unhealthy aspects of your history can free you to lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individuals and couples.

I have helped many clients to discover and free themselves from the unhealthy aspects of their histories.

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.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs

Many people feel ashamed of their emotional needs because they grew up in families where they were made to feel ashamed for even having emotional needs (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?)  One of the goals in therapy for many clients is to learn to recognize and accept their emotional needs (see my article: Allowing Yourself to Feel Your Feelings).

Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs 

Having emotional needs is a natural part of being human.  But for people who learned to feel ashamed of their needs, having emotional needs is perceived as a weakness.

Many people, who were traumatized as children, are no longer even aware of their emotional needs because they have become numb to them.

What is Emotional Numbing?
Emotional numbing is a defense against the intolerable shame and pain of having unmet emotional needs, especially emotional needs that stem from unmet childhood needs.

Emotional numbing not only cuts off feelings related to emotional needs, it also cuts off feelings of love, happiness and joy.  People who are especially cut off from their feelings have little awareness of their feelings and often have a hard time discerning other people's feelings.

Fictionalized Scenario:

Let's take a look at a fictionalized vignette to understand this phenomenon and how therapy can help.

Cora came to therapy because she was aware that she felt no joy in life.  In fact, she felt very little of anything.  Life just seemed flat to her.

Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs

It didn't matter that she had good friends, she was successful and well liked at work or that there were always men who were interested in her.  She took no pleasure in any of this.

She grew up in a home where she was taught to always put other people's needs before her own.  Her father, who was a minister, spent most of his time involved with church activities.  Her mother was involved in the same church activities, and Cora was expected to spend most of her spare time helping out in the church.

As far back as she could remember, her parents discouraged her from thinking about herself.  Whenever Cora wanted a doll or a toy, her parents scolded her for being selfish and not thinking about the many children around the world who didn't even have food to eat.

They told her, "How could you think of something so silly as having a doll when so many children are suffering?  Don't be so selfish."

As a child, whenever Cora wanted something for herself, she felt so guilty that she kept it to herself.  Even when she felt lonely and wished her parents would spend more time with her, she felt she was being selfish.

She felt that her parents' work in the church was more important than she was, and she shouldn't complain.  After a while, she learned not to feel these needs at all.

Throughout high school and college, Cora volunteered for many projects to help those who were less fortunate.  Although she won prizes for her work, she felt no joy in it.  All she felt was lonely.

Cora learned to look and act the part in her career, which brought her financial success, but she felt no inner satisfaction in her work and no sense of accomplishment.  She felt she was just continuing to do what she was supposed to do, just as she had when she was a child.  All the while, Cora felt she was an impostor (see my article: Overcoming Impostor Syndrome).

Cora learned to pretend to be happy.  It was a facade that she put on because she thought that that's what she was supposed to do, but she didn't feel it (see my article: How to Stop Pretending to Feel Happy When You Don't).

Then, Cora began dating John.  She was aware that he really liked her and she knew he was a good person but, beyond that, she was unsure what she felt. This made her uneasy.  Even sex felt flat to her and she pretended to enjoy it more than she did, so she felt like a phony.  This brought her into therapy.

Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs

When her therapist spoke to Cora about the importance of self care, Cora was unclear what this meant.  She knew about eating healthy food and getting exercise, but she didn't know what self care meant beyond that.

Even though Cora could well afford to get a massage or do other similar things to take care of herself, she told her therapist that she would feel guilty doing these things because she was aware that there were so many people in the world who didn't have their basic needs met, so how could she pamper herself?  This felt selfish to her (see my article: Is Self Care Selfish?).

Her therapist helped Cora to begin to identify her emotions by getting Cora to develop a felt sense in her body and where she felt these emotions in her body (see my article: The Mind-Body Connection: The Body Offers a Window into the Unconscious Mind).

So, for instance, Cora came to realize that when she felt angry, she felt tense in her hands and in her shoulders.  And when she felt anxious, she felt tense in her stomach.

Cora also realized in therapy that she felt it was perfectly okay for others to do things that made them feel good, like getting a massage or indulging in other types of self care.  So, she began to question why she felt that it was selfish for her.

Gradually, over time, Cora saw that she had learned from a young age to numb her feelings so that she was no longer aware of what she felt.

Her therapist helped Cora to see that this was a protective defense mechanism that she developed as a child because it would have been too painful to continue to feel her unmet emotional needs, but that it was no longer useful for her.  In fact, this defense was now getting in the way.

As she mourned for what she didn't get as a child, she developed a greater capacity to feel her emotions without feeling guilty for having emotional needs.

Over time, Cora opened up to experiencing her genuine feelings.  She was no longer pretending to feel happy--she actually felt joy and happiness.

Working in Therapy to Accept Your Emotional Needs

In her relationship, she opened up to the emotional intimacy of the relationship. She realized that she was falling in love with this man, and she felt pleasure that she had never felt before when they had sex.

Overall, Cora felt that she was coming alive in a way that she never knew was possible.

Emotional numbing often occurs at an early age as a defense against unmet childhood emotional needs.

What starts out a protective defense mechanism against intolerable feelings becomes a major obstacle later on in life.

Emotional numbing tends to numb all feelings--not just the ones that are difficult.  It often affects all relationships and can make life feel flat.

Psychotherapy with a psychotherapist who is trained to assist clients to overcome emotional numbing can make the difference between going through life feeling little or nothing and leading a vibrant and fulfilling life.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you are aware that you have difficulty either feeling your emotions or allowing yourself to feel good, you could benefit from seeking help from a licensed mental health professional who specializes in helping clients to identify and accept their emotional needs.

Rather than going through life feeling numb, you can learn to acknowledge and accept your emotional needs and live a fuller and happier life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome trauma and emotional numbing so that they could feel alive and happier in their lives.

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

Monday, April 11, 2016

Psychotherapy Blog: The Effects of Parental Transference in Therapy and at Work

In my earlier articles, I've discussed different types of transference that clients develop in therapy, including Psychotherapy and the Positive Transference and Psychotherapy and the Erotic Transference: Falling "In Love" With Your Therapist.  In this article, I'm focusing on another common form of transference, the parental transference.

The Effects of Parental Transference at Work and in Therapy

As I've mentioned in my prior articles, developing transference isn't limited to therapy.  People form transferential feelings in other relationships, including with mentors, teachers, a supervisor, in a relationship with a spouse or romantic partner, and so on.

Transference is usually unconscious--at least, at first.  Over time, the client and therapist usually become increasingly aware of the transference and can use the transferential feelings in therapy as part of the therapeutic work.

What is Parental Transference?
The parental transference often develops where the client experiences the therapist as either a maternal or paternal figure.  Often, this has nothing to do with age.  A therapist can be younger than a client and still evoke a parental transference.

The parental transference can be either positive or negative or it can alternate between positive and negative at different times in the same therapy.

When a client's parent is deceased, the parental transference can be especially powerful and often provides an opportunity for a client to work through unresolved feelings toward the parent.

When an adult client has unmet childhood needs, it's not unusual for him or her to develop a parental transference towards the therapist.

The counterpart of transference is the therapist's countertransference.  If the therapist is psychodynamically trained, s/he is usually aware of the client's transference and any countertransferential feelings s/he might have towards a client.

Just as a client can develop a parental transference, a therapist can also develop countertransferential feelings towards the client.  In that case, the therapist has parental feelings towards the client.

A Fictionalized Vignette
Let's look at a fictionalized vignette to illustrate how the parental transference can play out in therapy and how it can be worked through.

John came to therapy because he felt anxious around his new director at work.

Although he was successful in his career, he had developed anxiety-related symptoms when the new director replaced the former director, who had retired.

John had a very good relationship with his former director, Joe.  Joe was a mentor and helped John to move up in the company.  Even though John maintained contact with Joe, he missed their talks and his Joe's easygoing style.

John's new director, Nina, came from another company.  She had a reputation for being very talented and innovative in their field.

When John first met Nina, he felt that their meeting went well enough, so he couldn't understand why he felt uneasy with her.  There was nothing objective that John could pinpoint that could explain his anxiety around her.

Even though Nina praised his contribution to a big project and let him know that she was pleased with his work, John was anxious about falling short of her expectations.  No matter how he tried to convince himself that there was no objective reason why he should feel this way, his anxiety increased over time, which is why he came to therapy.

Initially, John was able to form a good therapeutic alliance with his therapist.  But, after a few weeks, he began to worry about how she saw him.  He worried that he wasn't being "a good patient" in therapy because he couldn't figure out why he was anxious around his new director.

The Effect of Parental Transference at Work and in Therapy

John's therapist assured him that they were just at the beginning of their exploration of his problem, they would explore this together, and she had no expectation that he would figure it out on his own.

Objectively, John knew that therapy is a collaborative process and that clients aren't expected to determine the underlying cause of their problems.  But, on an emotional level, he felt he was falling short in therapy and that his therapist would soon feel disappointed in him, if she wasn't already disappointed.  He couldn't understand why he felt this way.

Transferential Feelings Are Unconscious and Can Be Difficult to Understand

As John and his therapist explored his family background, it soon became apparent what was happening at work as well as in his therapy.

As an only child, John grew up feeling closer to his father than his mother.

Whereas John and his father spent a lot of time together camping, going to sporting events and building models, John spent relatively little time with his mother.  She spent long hours at the office and on weekends she was involved in community events.

Whenever John spent time around his mother, he was acutely aware of how impatient she was with him.  She tended to be aloof and critical of him.  John felt like he was a disappointment to his mother, so he felt anxious whenever he was around her.

After John's father died, when he was eight, he missed his father a lot.  He spent many hours alone in his room.  Dinner time with his mother was a lonely affair because she hardly talked and when she did, she would criticize John for falling short in some way.  As a result, John felt like a failure and that he never met up to her expectations.

As his therapist talked to John about parental transference, John began to understand his relationships with Joe and Nina and how he had unconsciously superimposed his parental relationships on them.

John realized Joe was like his father.  Joe was warm, generous and kind, just like John's father.  He also spent time helping John to develop in his career, and he had nurturing qualities similar to John's father.  So, it was easy to see how John would form a positive paternal transference towards Joe.

But Nina was nothing like his mother.  Even though Nina was different than his mother, she was still an authority figure, similar in nature to how a mother is an authority figure in a child's life.  Unconsciously, he kept waiting for her to morph into his mother.  As time went on, John's anxiety increased because of his unconscious anticipation.

John and his therapist also discussed how his anxiety towards her was similar to his anxiety around his mother.  Even though he and his therapist had a non-hierarchical relationship and she was nothing like his mother, he still feared that his therapist would be disappointed in him, similar to how his mother was disappointed in him.

As they continued to explore these feelings, John realized that his problems in romantic relationships often involved his fear that his partner would become disappointed with him.  He realized how this hindered him in terms of starting and maintaining relationships.

As John and his therapist continued to work together, John became aware that he had unresolved trauma related to the loss of his father and his unmet childhood emotional needs with his mother (see my article: What is Child Emotional Neglect?)

He and his therapist did inner child work to mourn what he didn't get as a child, especially after his father died, and to nurturing that younger part of him that felt unloved (see my article: Nurturing Your Inner Child).

Further exploration about his parental transference towards his director and his therapist helped John to differentiate his feelings for his mother and his feelings for his director and therapist.

It also helped John to distinguish who his mother was when he was growing up and who she was now.  He realized that his mother had softened over the years and that she had become a warmer, kinder person with age.

The more John was able to make the differentiation between his mother from his childhood from his mother now, the better he felt.

Working Through Transference and Feeling Confident

Rather than doubting himself, John began to feel confident at work and at ease with his director.

He felt comfortable with his therapist.

Transferential feelings are a normal part of life, whether they occur in therapy, at work or in other important relationships.

Transference is usually unconscious so, initially, people believe that whatever they're feeling about a person is directly related to the person and not affected by earlier feelings.

Psychotherapy offers an opportunity to work through transferential feelings as well as resolve unmet childhood needs and unresolved loss and trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy
Transferential issues are difficult to work through on your own.

Transferential feelings are often entrenched, enduring and can last a lifetime if you don't seek help.

Not all therapists work with transference, so if you think that your problems are related to transference (whether this involves transference in a relationship or at work), find out if the therapist that you plan to consult with has been trained psychodynamically (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychodynamically-trained psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR 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 (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Monday, April 4, 2016

You Can't Change Your Past, But You Can Change How the Past Affects You Now

Part of being an adult is knowing and accepting that there will be loss and difficult times.  No one can escape experiencing emotional pain at certain points in life.  And, even though we can't change what's happened to us in the past, we can learn in therapy how to change how loss and traumatic events affect us (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on the Past).

You Can't Change Your Past, But You Can Change How It Affects You Now

Without even realizing it, many people who experienced loss or psychological trauma in the past continue to experience these events as if they're happening now.

On an intellectual level, they know that they're not experiencing the event now but, on an emotional level, they continue to feel it as if it's happening in the present.

Even when someone is aware that s/he is "stuck" emotionally and s/he wants to get "unstuck," it's often hard to do alone.

How to go about getting "unstuck" is different for each person and situation.  For many people, in order to start the healing process, they have to grieve for the loss or change in their life.

This can be challenging because, even when people want to feel better, there can still be a part of them that wants to hold on.

Grieving is often an acknowledgement of irreparable loss, which can be painful as compared to holding on and having the illusion that life can go back to how it was before the loss or traumatic event.

Each person will go through this process in his or her own way, but working with an a licensed psychotherapist, who has experience in helping clients to overcome these types of problems is usually more helpful than trying to do it on your own.

After someone acknowledges that the loss or event has caused a change, it's beneficial to look at how this loss or event is affecting you now and what you can do to change how it's have a negative effect.

Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario, based on many different cases, to understand how therapy can help.

When Sandy was five, her father left the household to move in with another woman.

Prior to his moving out, Sandy heard her parents arguing at night about this other woman when they thought she was asleep.  Because of these arguments, Sandy feared that her father, whom she was very attached to, would leave.  So, when he actually left, her worst fear came true and she was very upset.

Not only did she feel that she lost her father, she also felt that she lost her mother too because her mother became depressed and withdrawn after Sandy's father moved out.  Sandy could see that her mother really tried to put on a brave face and tried to assure Sandy that everything would be okay.  But Sandy knew that her mother was devastated and things wouldn't be the same.

Her father came to see Sandy on the weekends.  He tried to seem cheerful and assure Sandy that he would always be there for her, but Sandy felt confused, angry and unhappy that he moved out.

Even though he tried to explain to Sandy that his leaving had nothing to do with her and that it was a problem that was between Sandy's mother and him, she couldn't understand why he wouldn't just move back in.  And, as is natural for children her age, she felt like it was her fault that he left, no matter how much he tried to reassure her.

Her father tried for a long time to repair his relationship with Sandy.  But by the time Sandy was a teenager, she still had a lot of anger and hurt, and she told him that she didn't want to see him anymore. At that point, her father gave up and told her that if she was ever ready to have a relationship with him again, she could call him.

Although she never realized it before she came to therapy, Sandy's experience with her father colored her adult experiences later on with men.

You Can't Change Your Past, But You Can Change How Your Past Affects You in Therapy

By the time Sandy came to therapy, she was in her late 20s, and she couldn't understand why all of her relationships with men fell apart.

Her most recent relationship had just ended, and she was in despair, wanting to be in a loving relationship, but fearful of ever attempting to be in a relationship again (see my article: An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love).

Her ambivalence about men and relationships was evident almost from the beginning.  When her therapist asked her to describe her relationships with men, she said in a negative tone, "Oh, you know how men are…" and then she described a string of relationships where she ended up heart broken.

In each of these relationships, her boyfriend hurt her by either cheating on her or leaving her for someone else.

This had happened so many times to her that she believed that "all men are dogs."  And since she believed that all men were emotionally unreliable, she felt she was in a unsolvable dilemma because she wanted love, but she didn't believe it was possible because she feared she would always get hurt.

When someone has a propensity to choose emotionally unreliable romantic partners, it's often hard for him or her to see that there's an unconscious process going on in terms of choosing these unreliable people.

The fact that it's an unconscious process makes it difficult to see because, at least on a conscious level, most people want to make healthy choices in relationships.

As Sandy and her therapist explored these issues further, her therapist asked Sandy if she knew any women who were in happy relationships with men who are loving, kind and trustworthy.

Sandy named several of her friends who were in good relationships with kind, loving men.

As soon as Sandy said this, she surprised herself.  Even though she knew how she felt about men and she also knew that she had women friends who were in happy relationships with men, she never put the two "contradictory knowings" together.

When she thought about these two contradictory knowings at the same time, she realized that they couldn't both be true:  If her women friends were in good relationships with men that they were happy with, then all men can't be "dogs."

Rather than thinking that her feelings about men were objectively "true," she realized that her feelings were her own personal perceptions.

Then, she became curious as to why she had these longstanding negative feelings about men--not just about the men that she had been in relationships with, but about all men.

As her therapist worked with Sandy on this, Sandy realized that her perception of men was based on her early experience with her father and that, until now, this had been unconscious.

Shortly after that, Sandy told her therapist that she didn't understand how it would help her to work on this issue because she couldn't change the past.

In response, her therapist agreed that no amount of therapy could change the past, but they could work on changing how the past affected her.

Her therapist also discussed how early childhood trauma often gets unconsciously repeated later on in an adult's life.

Sandy gradually realized that she was unconsciously choosing men who were unreliable and who would be more likely to hurt her, so it wasn't about all men--it was about the men that she was choosing.

Over time, Sandy realized that her perspective about her father was based on her childhood feelings.

As a child, she had only a limited perspective about her father and his leaving.  As an adult, she could have a much broader perspective.

And, while, even as an adult, she didn't condone his infidelity, she understood that her parents' relationship was much more complex than she could have ever understood as a child (see my article: Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From an Adult Perspective).

Shortly after that, Sandy contacted her father.  He was genuinely remorseful for hurting Sandy when she was a child.  Over time, they were able to reconcile their relationship.

Getting Help in Therapy to Change the Effects of Unresolved Trauma

Sandy was able to make healthier choices about the men that she dated.  Eventually, she met a man that she loved and who loved and respected her, and he became her husband.

  • Many people avoid attending therapy because they believe that nothing in their life could change because they can't change the past.
  • Even though no one can change the past, we can develop ways in therapy to change the way the effect of the past.
  • Adult relationships are often based on earlier childhood experiences, both positive and negative.
  • When an adult has unresolved childhood trauma, the trauma has an unconscious effect, especially when it comes to choosing partners for a romantic relationship.  
  • People are often surprised to discover what a significant impact an unresolved childhood trauma can have.  
  • Without therapy, many people spend their whole lives affected by an unresolved trauma.
  • Without therapy, many people don't question their assumptions (similar to Sandy in the vignette above who really believed that all men were "dogs").
  • Therapy can help clients to uncover the unconscious cause of current problems so that they can be free of their traumatic history.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're struggling on your own with emotional problems, you could benefit from seeing a licensed mental health professional who can help you to overcome these problems so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to free themselves of their traumatic history so they could lead happier 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.