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Monday, June 27, 2016

Relationships: Obsessions About the "One Who Got Away"

Many people, especially people who are middle aged, obsess about their first love, the "one who got away."  Even if they're happy in their current relationship, it's not unusual for people to ruminate about an old love and think how much better life would be if they were still with their "first love."

Relationships: Obsessing About the "One Who Got Away"

In these fantasies about an old love, people tend to think that they would have had the ideal relationship with that former girlfriend or boyfriend.

Before the advent of social media, these fantasies would usually remain just that-fantasies.

Romantic Fantasies About the "One Who Got Away"

But now with so many different ways to reconnect with former friends and lovers, many people, even people who are already relationships, are making an effort to try to find their old love to reconnect with them and start over (see my article: Relationships: Romantic Reconnections).

Even if someone doesn't make an effort to reconnect with an old love, s/he can remain stuck in old memories and fantasies about what "could have been" if the relationship hadn't ended.

If there is an existing relationship, the current spouse or partner usually can't live up to the ideal fantasies about the old love.

Romantic Fantasies About the "One Who Got Away"

These fantasies usually don't include the mundane aspects of life, like taking out the garbage, paying bills or looking at your spouse snoring while asleep.  They're usually romantic fantasies where life is blissful without a care.

Even if the person who is obsessing about an old love isn't in a relationship, these fantasies can keep him or her from finding someone to be with who could be a real partner and not a fantasy.

The following fictionalized vignette is an example of how obsessions about an old love can affect relationship and how therapy can help:

Dan and his wife, Marie, were married for almost 15 years.

As Dan approached his 40th birthday, he started going through his old college pictures and he found pictures of his former girlfriend, Karen.

When he saw her pictures, he remembered how beautiful she was and how in love with her he had been.

Relationships: Obsessing About the "One Who Got Away"

They had dated for three years in college and they were almost always together.  Everyone, including Dan, assumed that they would get married after college.

Then, as graduation approached, Karen decided that, rather than taking an apartment with Dan in NYC, as they had planned, she wanted to go back home to California for a while.

Dan remembered being shocked and heart broken, and he was even more heart broken when Karen told him that she wanted to be free to date other men.

On their last day at college, they stayed up all night and watched the sun rise.  They were both crying, knowing that they would miss each other.

Dan tried to convince Karen to change her mind, but she told him that she needed to be sure about him, and she wanted to date other  people before she made a lifetime commitment to be with him.

She told him that she doubted that she would meet anyone that she would care about as much as him, and she would probably call him after a while and tell him that she regretted ever moving away from him.  But, she said, for now she needed to be free.

Seeing Karen's pictures after all of these years brought back all those memories.

Relationships: Obsessing About the "One Who Got Away"

He remembered that after college graduation, at first, they talked on the phone everyday and told each other how much they missed each other.

Dan told Karen that it was crazy for them to be separated and she should just come live with him in New York.  No matter how she explained it to him, he couldn't understand why she wasn't with him.

Then, after a while, Karen wasn't calling him or returning his calls as often.

At first, when he questioned her about it, she denied that she met anyone new.  But, as he persisted to question her, she admitted that she was dating someone that she really liked, and Dan was devastated.

At that point, Karen told him that she thought it would better for them not to talk on the phone anymore.  She told him that she would write to him and let him know what she decided.  She also encouraged Dan to date other women, which he had not done until then.  No amount of pleading with her would change her mind.

Dan heard from Karen a couple of months later that she was in a serious relationship with this other man and she didn't think it would be right for her to keep communicating with Dan.  She told him in her letter how much she had loved him in the past, but she knew that there was something missing from their relationship and she found it with this other man.

In a fit of rage, Dan tore up her letter and everything that he found of hers.  But, somehow, he never found these pictures, until now.

He never heard from Karen again, but he heard from mutual friends that she got married a year later to the man she was dating when she last communicated with Dan.  Then, he lost contact with their mutual friends and he didn't hear about her anymore.

Dan wasn't unhappy in his marriage, but sometimes he felt bored.

By the time he met Marie, he and Karen had been broken up for a few years.  The first couple of years, his relationship with Marie was loving and passionate.  But after several years, their life settled down into a predictable routine.

One of things that he loved about Karen was that she was so adventurous and open to new experiences.    When they were together, they would talk about all the places that they would travel to after college graduation and what their dream house would be like.  He always felt happy around her.

Relationships: Obsessing About the "One Who Got Away"

Even though he had not thought about Karen for several years before he found her picture, he was obsessing about her now.

He would go to sleep wondering what her life was like and if she ever thought about him.  He would have dreams about their days together in college.  He had a dream that he called her after all these years, and she told him that she regretted ever breaking up with him.

Relationships: Obsessing About the "One Who Got Away" 

In one of his dreams, he flew to California, reconnected with Karen and left Marie.  When he woke up, he felt disoriented.  When he saw Marie lying next to him, he felt partly relieved and partly disappointed.

Although Dan told Marie early on about his relationship with Karen, Dan didn't tell Marie now about finding Karen's picture.  But Marie sensed that something was wrong because Dan seemed so distracted when he was around her.  When she asked him about it, he made up an excuse and went out for a walk.

Dan felt that his obsessive thoughts were becoming overwhelming, especially since he was thinking more and more about trying to contact Karen.

The thought of contacting her made him feel excited and scared at the same time.  He didn't know what he would say to her or if she would even talk to him.

In his fantasies, she would be thrilled to hear from him, but he also knew that she might think it was very strange to hear from him all these years later.

Relationships: Obsessing About the "One Who Got Away"

Dan looked Karen up online one day and found her address in San Francisco.  He tried to see if she had a Facebook page, but he couldn't find one.  He told himself that he was just curious but, on some level, Dan knew that he was becoming more and more obsessed.

One night over dinner, when Marie was talking to him, he realized that he hadn't heard a word that she had said.  At first, he felt embarrassed, but then when he saw the hurt look on his face, he felt sad and guilty.

Marie asked him if he was having an affair.  When he told her no, he felt like he was lying, and she looked suspicious and hurt.  She asked him why he had been looking so distracted lately, and he lied to her and told her that he didn't know.

That night when they were in bed and Marie approached him, he knew that he wasn't in the mood to make love to her, but he didn't dare say no.  The only way that he was able to make love to her was by thinking about how passionately he used to make love to Karen.

Afterwards, Marie looked happy, cuddled in his arms and told him how much she loved him.  But Dan felt guilty and like a fraud.  He knew he needed help before he ruined his marriage.

He found a psychotherapist through his doctor and made an appointment for that week.

After he explained his situation and his therapist told him that his experience was common, he felt relieved.

Then, he and his therapist began exploring the underlying reasons why Dan was obsessing about Karen.  He knew, logically, that he had not thought about her in several years, but his feelings were so strong now.

His therapist helped him to understand that his feelings were based on memories and he was reliving his experiences with Karen in his mind.  Even though the emotions felt were very powerful now, they were related to memories and fantasies.  In reality, Dan didn't know what being with Karen would be like now.

He also knew that he loved Marie and he didn't want to leave her.

Then, he and his therapist talked about how he felt about his upcoming 40th birthday, and Dan slumped in his chair.  He soon realized that his fantasies about his time with Karen were mostly about being young and in love during an earlier time in his life that was carefree and exciting.

Instead of obsessing about Karen, Dan decided to work on his marriage.

He and Marie began traveling and doing some of the things that they had always wanted to do and were always putting them off.  He was thrilled to discover that Marie was open to new experiences, and he felt closer to her than he had felt in a long time.

Working on Your Relationship

Dan continued to work in therapy on his fears about getting old and all that this entailed.

In the meantime, he and Marie rekindled their relationship and his thoughts about Karen faded back into his memory.

Getting Help in Therapy
Having fantasies about an old love isn't unusual, but if these thoughts are getting in the way of your current life and you can't put them into perspective for yourself, you could benefit from seeking help from a licensed mental health professional who can help you to discover the underlying reasons for your fantasies so you can take steps to get your life back.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC 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, June 20, 2016

Writing to Cope With Grief

Coping with grief can be challenging.  Many people find that writing is helpful during times of grief and loss.

Coping With Grief

I've written about grief and loss in prior articles, including:

Coping With the Loss of a Loved One
Coping With Complicated Grief
Grief in Waiting After the Death of a Parent
Allowing Room For Grief
Holding Onto Grief as a Way to Stay Emotionally Connected to a Deceased Loved One
Inconsolable Grief After a Mother's Death

There are many ways to cope with grief.  In this article, I'm focusing on one particular way to cope with grief, which is to write.

Coping With Grief

Coping with grief is personal.  What works for one person might not work for someone else.  One way to cope with grief is to write.

Journal Writing
In a prior article, I wrote about journal writing to cope with stress and anxiety (Journal Writing Can Relieve Stress and Anxiety) and how journal writing can help to cultivate a sense of gratitude (Keeping a Gratitude Journal).

Writing to Cope With Grief

Keeping a journal during times of grief can help you to explore and release all the emotions that can come up when you've lost someone close to you.

At different times, you might feel sad, angry, confused, anxious or all of these feelings combined together.

Writing down your feelings in a journal helps to clarify what you're feeling, especially when you're caught up in a storm of confusing feelings.

The flow of writing can help to release feelings that you might not even know that you were having.

It can help you to get to some of the underlying emotions that are under the surface.

For instance, you might feel angry at the person who died, but you might not realize that underneath the anger might be sadness (see my article: Discovering That Sadness is Often Underneath Anger).

Writing Letters to a Deceased Loved One
Often, after a loved one dies, surviving family members realize that there are so many things they want to say that they went unsaid.

Writing to Cope With Grief

Many people find it helpful to write letters to a loved one that they keep.  These letters can be written in a stream of consciousness, writing whatever comes to mind. As a alternative,  each letter can be about particular emotions or subjects.

When you write stream of consciousness, you write whatever comes to mind without censoring yourself.

Many writers, who feel blocked, write stream of consciousness to get ideas and emotions flowing.

In the same way, if you're struggling with your emotions about someone close to you who died, you can use this method to allow your emotions to flow.

Writing Down the Milestones of a Deceased Loved One's Life
In an earlier article, Writing the Milestones of Your Life, I wrote about how making a list of the big events in your life can help to give you a perspective about your life.

Writing to Cope With Grief

In the same way, writing down the milestones of a deceased loved one can also give you a different perspective.

For instance, if you thought that your loved one had only sad times in his or her life, you might remember certain big events in his or her life that brought joy and happiness or was meaningful in a certain way.

Usually, after someone who was close to us dies, we tend to remember only the final days, which are usually sad, challenging and, possibly, traumatic.  But to put everything into perspective, in most cases, there were usually many more days in a full life that weren't sad, challenging or traumatic.

Even if it's not a milestone, like birth or marriage, there might be an event that you remember that you know was meaningful to your loved one.  Write it down and it will help to put your loved one's life in context and, hopefully, provide you with some relief in your time of grief.

Writing a "Memoir"or Story
The word "memoir" sounds so formal.

When we think of memoirs, we think of famous people, like presidents, actors or other important people in history.

But anyone can write a memoir or story about him or herself or about someone else.

Writing to Cope With Grief

The type of memoir that I'm suggesting is more personal and informal and not for publication (unless after you write it, you want to do so).

After you write down the milestones in your loved one's life, you might want to write a page or so about one or more of those milestones in order to expand upon it.

There's no pressure about doing this because it's only for you.

In the same way that you might speak about a deceased loved one at a memorial service, writing a memoir or story is essentially a dialogue that you have with yourself.

There might be parts of your loved one's life that you don't know about when you're writing.  Maybe you'll choose one particular day to write about instead of trying to write about more than one event.

Since this is only writing that you're doing for yourself, you can do your best to guess what might have happened during that period.

The purpose of writing a memoir or story is not to get all the facts right.  The purpose is to help you during your time of grief by seeing the totality of your loved one's life, the good times, the hard times, etc.

Having a Dialogue in Writing
Aside from journal writing, letter writing and writing a memoir or story, you can use your imagination to write down a conversation that you would like to have with a deceased loved one.

Similar to writing a letter, you might have things you would have liked to have said but you didn't get a chance before s/he died.

By writing a dialogue, you have an imaginary conversation with your loved one.  If s/he was close to you, you can imagine how s/he might have responded to you.

Another way to use having a dialogue in writing is to use your imagination to rewrite an actual conversation that you wish had gone differently.

For instance, maybe you have regrets about something you said or maybe you wish your loved one would have responded differently during an actual conversation.

You can't undo what has already happened in the past, but you can experience some relief by using your imagination to write down the conversation that you wish you would have had.

Very often, people are amazed at how healing this can be.

Writing can be a healing when you're struggling with grief.

People often say that they're not sure how to begin or what to write.  If you feel stuck, use the stream of consciousness method where you just write the first thing that comes to your mind without censoring yourself.

These writing exercises can be done at any time, whether your loved one passed away today or 50 or more years ago.

Allowing yourself to express your feelings in writing can be a great relief and help you in your healing process.

Getting Help in Therapy
Psychotherapy with a licensed psychotherapist can also help you through the grieving process.

Having a place that is private and comfortable for you to talk can be a gift that you give yourself.

A licensed mental health professional, who has expertise with grief and mourning, can help you to heal your sadness and grief.

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

My specialties, among other areas, include trauma and grief, and I have helped many clients through the grieving process.

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, June 13, 2016

How the "Other Woman" or "Other Man" in an Affair Can Keep the Primary Relationship Together

In a prior article, Leading a Double Life in an Affair as the "Other Woman" or "Other Man", I discussed what it is like being the "other woman" or the "other man" with someone who is already in a primary relationship with someone else.  In this article, I'm focusing on how an affair often keeps the couple in the primary relationship together (see my article: Infidelity: Acting In Instead of Acting Out).

How the "Other Woman" or "Other Man" Keeps the Primary Relationship Together

Although it might seem that extramarital affairs always break up a marriage, this is often not the case.  After the initial shock, anger and sadness, many couples decide to remain together and try to work things out (see my article: The Allure of the Extramarital Affair).

Often, affairs don't start with the "other man" or "other women" making demands, especially if s/he is aware that there is a spouse or committed partner.  But as the affair continues, it's not usual for the person who is the "other" to make demands for the partner to leave the primary relationship.

Over time, this can involve threats to let the spouse know about the affair if the partner doesn't leave on his or her own accord.

From the point of view of the two people in the committed relationship, before the unsuspecting spouse finds out about the affair, the situation between them often improves because the cheating spouse is now getting whatever s/he felt was missing from the primary relationship.

The "other woman" or "other man," who might be hoping that the partner will leave the primary relationship, is often surprised to discover that partner is now happier with the arrangement and that each person, the spouse and the other partner in combination, meet his or her needs.

While it's true that not everyone who has an affair does so because s/he feels something is missing in the primary relationship, this is often true for a large percentage of people who cheat.

As previously mentioned, even after the unsuspecting spouse finds out, s/he and the spouse might decide, ultimately, that they've invested too much in their marriage to split up.  At that point, they might enter into couples therapy.

The following fictionalized scenario demonstrates how this dynamic often plays out.

Alice, Jim, and Ellen
Alice met Jim at the hotel bar when each of them were on a business trip.

Although he was flirtatious with Alice, he also let her know from the start that he was married.  Alice wasn't looking for a committed relationship at that point, so it didn't matter to her that Jim was married.

How the "Other Woman" or "Other Man" Keeps the Primary Relationship Together

Alice thought Jim was sexy and intelligent, and she never thought that anything would evolve beyond a one-night stand with him.

But after that initial encounter, Alice moved to NYC to take a new job.  Discovering that they worked near each other, they carried on an affair during lunch hours and after work.

Jim made it very clear that he would never leave his wife, Ellen, whom he loved.  But he liked being with Alice because she was more sexually adventurous than Ellen.  He was a little bored in his marriage, and the secrecy of the affair excited him.

Several months into the affair, Alice was a restaurant with friends.  As she was about to leave, she saw Jim and Ellen together.  She was surprised and hurt to see how loving they were with each other.  Alice watched them together, but Jim didn't see her.

How the "Other Woman" or "Other Man" Keeps the Primary Relationship Together

After that, she realized that she was jealous and she had developed deeper feelings for Jim without realizing it.  So, when she saw him again, she told him that she loved him, hoping he would leave his marriage to be with her.

He was initially surprised.  Then, he told Alice that although he was fond of her, he didn't want to leave his marriage.  In fact, he said, he was happier in his marriage now than he had ever been since he started the affair with Alice.  He explained to her that while he liked her and had fun with her, he wanted to stay with Ellen.  Ellen fulfilled other important emotional needs, and he had no intention of leaving her.

Alice became enraged at Jim's self centeredness.  Before she saw Jim and Ellen together, Alice thought he was bored with his marriage to Ellen and he would soon realize that he really wanted end the marriage to be with her.

After hearing what Jim had to say, she realized that, by having the affair with Jim, she was actually helping to keep Jim and Ellen together.  This infuriated her.

Alice gave Jim an ultimatum: Either leave Ellen to be with her or she would contact Ellen and tell her about the affair.  She gave him two months to do this.

Jim warned her against ever calling Ellen.  He felt that Ellen was "the innocent party" in all of this and she didn't deserve to be hurt.  He also reminded Alice that he told her from the beginning that he had no intention of ending his marriage.  If he were not married, he said, he would want to be in a relationship with Alice, but he was, so he couldn't be with her.

Before she could say anything more, Jim kissed her and used his seductive charm to placate her.  He also comforted himself by telling himself that Alice would never reveal their affair to Ellen.  She was just trying to manipulate him, he thought, and nothing would come of it.

But as time passed, Alice became more determined.  After spending the holidays by herself while Jim was with his wife, she decided that, once the two month deadline was up, she would make good on her threat.  Then, she thought, Ellen would leave Jim and he would be free to be with her.

After a month and a half went by, Alice asked Jim if he had told his wife about the affair.  When he laughed and said "Of course not, and you're not going to do it either."

Alice remained quiet, but she was seething inside.  She became obsessed with how and when she would contact Ellen and what she would say.

Alice decided to call Ellen at home when she knew that Jim was away.

When she heard Ellen's voice on the phone, Alice got anxious and nearly hung up.  But she decided that she had already made up her mind and she wasn't going to back down.

How the "Other Woman" or "Other Man" Keeps the Primary Relationship Together

Summoning her courage, she told Ellen that she was having an affair with Jim for the past year and she had pictures and text messages to prove it.

Initially, Ellen was silent and then she told Alice that she had suspected this for several months, but she couldn't bring herself to confront him.  But now that she knew, she was going to fight for her marriage.  Then, she hung up.

The next day, Jim called Alice in a rage.  Ellen told him about the call and he was furious with Alice for hurting Ellen.  Alice wanted to say, "Are you going to take any responsibility for hurting her?"  But before she could say anything else, he told her that he and Ellen decided to work on their marriage and he never wanted to see Alice again.  Then he hung up.

Alice was stunned.  She never thought it would end this way.  She was sure that Ellen would be angry and leave Jim.  She didn't realize that the marriage was that important to both Ellen and Jim and that they would try to work things out, even though Ellen was very hurt about the affair.

After that, Alice plunged into a depression and she began therapy to try to understand what happened and why she allowed herself to be the "other woman"with a married man.

In therapy, she discovered that the triangulation that went on in her childhood home was, unconsciously,  at the core of her decision to get into a love triangle with Jim (see my article:  How Triangulation in the Childhood Home Can Lead to Love Triangles as an Adult).

She felt deeply ashamed of her role as the "other woman" and angry because she felt "used" by Jim.

Gradually, she was able to work through the current issues as well as the earlier childhood trauma so that, eventually, she was able to enter into a healthy relationship.

Jim and Ellen went to couples therapy to work on the rift in their marriage.  The couples therapist also recommended that Jim enter into his own individual therapy to understand the underlying issues that lead to his infidelity.

The couples therapist also recommended that Ellen enter into her own individual therapy to understand what the underlying issues were for her in terms of suspecting an affair but not confronting Jim.

Even though Ellen was very angry and hurt, she and Jim were both committed to saving their marriage.  Ellen realized that she often found Jim to be too sexually demanding and, on some level, she was relieved that he might be seeing someone else to meet his sexual needs.  She explored this further in her own individual therapy.

Jim realized how selfish he had been to have the affair.  He also realized that the affair was compartmentalized in his mind and that this compartmentalization was what kept him from feeling guilty about it.

In addition, Jim came to see how insecure he was and that having an attractive, sexy woman like Alice was an boost to his ego.

In his individual therapy, he worked on the earlier childhood issues that contributed to his feelings of insecurity about himself, so that he wouldn't act out again by having another affair.

Although many people breakup after one or both find out about an extramarital affair, there are also many couples who remain together.

Contrary to what might seem logical, affairs often stabilize the primary relationship in ways that the "other woman" or "other man" might not foresee.

Each person who is involved in the triangle plays a particular role, which will be different in each love triangle.

Often the core problems that lead to love triangles are rooted in earlier unresolved childhood issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
Whether you're the person who is cheating, the other spouse or the the other woman or man, psychotherapy with a licensed mental health professional can be helpful in working through these issues.

Working through the earlier issues that are often at the core, as well as working on present day problems, can help you to work through these issues and move on with your life, no matter which role you play in the triangle.

If you identify with the problems presented in this article, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC 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, June 6, 2016

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the "Wall" You've Built Around Yourself

The idea of a protective "wall" is often used as a metaphor for a common defense mechanism that many people use to protect themselves from getting hurt.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

This wall, which often develops in early childhood, helps protect the child from being too vulnerable and emotionally overwhelmed (see my article:  Are You Living Your Life Trapped By Your Childhood Trauma?)

So, in that sense, the wall serves a good purpose, especially since children have fewer emotional defenses.   But erecting this wall comes at a significant emotional cost in other ways:  Not only does it keep out potential hurt and emotional pain, but it can also keeps out potential love and nurturing.

When this child grows up to be an adult, the wall also creates loneliness and isolation.  After many years of  living behind an emotional wall, it's usually difficult to overcome this on one's own.  There is usually a strong sense of ambivalence:  Wanting to take down the wall for emotional support and, at the same time, wanting the protection of this wall.

So, therapy with a licensed mental health professional, who understands the unconscious dynamics involved and who can titrate the work to make it emotionally manageable, can help someone struggling with this issue to develop the emotional resources, courage and the understanding necessary to slowly take down this emotionally defensive wall.

Why slowly?  Most people would find it too scary if their defenses were removed too quickly.  So, it's a relatively slow process depending upon the client's level of comfort and feeling of safety in the therapy.

To a greater or lesser degree, we all have emotional walls, depending upon the people around us and the circumstances.  None of us walk around without any emotional defenses.  The wall is either thicker or thinner and more or less permeable depending upon how much we trust others.  Ideally, it allows for a flow love, understanding and intimacy for those who are closest to us, if we allow closeness.

So, it's not an all or nothing matter of either having the wall or not--it's more a matter of allowing a certain amount of emotional vulnerability to be able to relate to others and develop close relationships.

Continuing with the metaphor of the wall, people who have built thick walls around themselves often don't differentiate between people they can potentially trust and people they can't.  A history of significant psychological trauma creates the kind of defensive structure that keeps most, if not all, people out.

But, as I mentioned before, this is a lonely and isolating existence, which often leaves people feeling trapped between wanting closeness and fearing it (see my article: An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love and Overcoming Loneliness and Social Isolation).

The following fictional vignette demonstrates how therapy can be helpful to feel safe enough to slowly begin taking down this defensive wall.

From an early age, Edna learned that she had to be hypervigilant around her parents, who were both active alcoholics.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

On the rare occasions when they weren't drinking, they were kind and generous with Edna.  During those times, her mother was affectionate and would read Edna's favorite stories to her at bedtime.  Her father would take her to the park and teach her how to roller skate and ride a bike.

But when they were drunk, which was most of the time, they would yell at Edna and tell her to get away from them.

Edna never knew when her parents might be sober or drunk, so she learned at an early age to pick up cues from each of her parents in order to protect herself from their anger.

Because it was too emotionally painful to want affection from her parents when they were drunk and angry, she learned to shut down emotionally.  It wasn't a decision that she made conscious.  Rather it was an unconscious decision that she made to protect herself emotionally.

As an only child, she endured this on her own, and she would bury herself in her books or play by herself with her toys in her room while they were raging at each other while drunk.  She learned to stay out of their way most of the time.

It was hard for her to enjoy those times her parents were affectionate (during those rare times when they were sober) because she never knew when, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they would turn into angry drunks again.  She knew that the good times wouldn't last because they were rare and they were often followed by the bad times when they were hurtful towards her.

Since she knew that she couldn't count on her parents emotionally, she developed a pseudo independence where she only relied on herself.  As a young child, she sometimes imagined a fairy godmother hovering around her to magically protect her.

After she left home to go to college, she only developed a few friends on campus.  She had a difficult time allowing people to get close to her, so the few people who showed themselves to be loyal and trustworthy were the ones that she allowed to get relatively close to her.  But even these friends told her that sometimes they felt that she shut them out.

Relationships with young men were even more difficult for her.  She dated a few men in college, but as soon as it seemed that things could get serious, she ended the relationship.  This left her feeling sad and lonely, but she didn't know how to overcome her fear of getting hurt.

When she graduated college and moved to NYC to start a career, she felt even more isolated and lonely.  She spent a lot of time by herself when she wasn't at work, and the weekends seemed very long to her.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

Edna knew herself well enough to know that she was struggling with a terrible dilemma.  She knew she had built a wall around herself and that she allowed only a few people to get through a little bit.  She also knew that if she continued like this, she would be alone, which she didn't want.  So, on the recommendation of her primary doctor, who diagnosed her as being mildly depressed, she started therapy.

After hearing Edna's family history, her therapist, who was a trauma therapist, started by providing Edna with psychoeducation as to why she was so ambivalent about allowing people to get close to her. Edna was relieved to hear that she wasn't the only one who was suffering in this way.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

Over time, her therapist also helped Edna to develop inner resources to do the necessary trauma work to help her overcome her defensiveness (see my article: Developing Internal Resources and Coping Skills).

These resources included:
  • learning to calm herself when she felt anxious, fearful or overwhelmed
  • developing a felt sense to know when she felt happy and safe
  • being able to mentally call on people, some of whom she knew and others that she imagined, that she could imagine helping her when she felt upset
  • learning breathing exercises to calm herself
  • helping her to sense and identify emotions in her body (the mind-body connection)

After Edna developed these resources and learned how to use them, her therapist began using experiential therapy to help Edna work through the earlier psychological trauma so that she would feel freer to develop close relationships.

Edna was committed to her work in therapy and she came to her sessions regularly.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

Gradually, she began to feel that her fears were lifting and she felt the possibility of developing closer relationships with people.

As she started dating again, she talked to her therapist about the men that she met.  With the help of her therapist, she became more discerning--rather than fearing everyone, she got to know people over time slowly and developed insight into how much she could trust people.

This wasn't easy work and sometimes she had setbacks (see my article:  Setback are a Normal Part of Psychotherapy on the Road to Healing).

But, over time, she developed a secure relationship with her therapist, which made her feel hopeful that she could develop secure relationships with others.

Along the way, she did "inner child" work with her therapist to help the most vulnerable part of herself to feel nurtured and understood.

As she developed a closer internal relationship with her inner child, she realized that it was this young part of her that was often overprotective to the point where it discouraged her from getting too close to others.

If this inner child could speak, it was as if she was sounding an alarm for the adult Edna, "Danger! Danger! Don't get close to that person.  You're' going to get hurt!"

The inner child work helped that part of Edna to feel safer.  The adult part of Edna reassured her inner child that she would protect her so that she no longer needed to feel fearful of everyone.

How Therapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall

Little by little, Edna opened up more. She began to allow more people in as she felt it was safe.  Rather than her wall being thick and impenetrable, so to speak, it was now more permeable as she learned whom she could trust and allow to get closer to her.

Eventually, as she became more discerning, she began to see that she could have different relationships with different people:  She was developing a relationship with a boyfriend; she had more close friends and confidantes; and she also had a few acquaintances, who weren't close, but whom she liked doing certain activities with and who were fun.

The description of someone having a wall around them is a metaphor to describe an emotional defense mechanism that helps to protect him or her from feeling too emotionally vulnerable.  Other metaphors include having a protective "shell" or "armor."

While the wall serves an important protective purpose, especially in early childhood, it also keeps a person feeling lonely and isolated.

The dilemma becomes that, on the one hand, it feels too scary to allow others to get close but, on the other hand, keeping people away leads to loneliness and isolation.

Psychotherapists who are trauma therapists and trained to help clients to overcome these struggles, usually working gradually to overcome this dilemma.

Developing a secure and trusting relationship over time is part of this process, and trauma therapists know how to facilitate this process.  It will be different for each client.

Developing internal resources is another important part of the process before actually working directly on the unresolved trauma.

Once the client has worked through the trauma and learns to be discerning about relationships, s/he is usually free to interact without fear that s/he will be too vulnerable.

Getting Help in Therapy From a Trauma Therapist
Often, part of the dilemma is that, since it's hard to trust others, it's also hard to open up to a psychotherapist, even a therapist who is trained in trauma therapy.

I usually recommend that clients go to a few sessions with a therapist and find out how s/he works before delving into the trauma work (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Loneliness and isolation are painful to endure on your own.  If you're struggling with fears about getting close to others, you can overcome your fears and lead a more fulfilling life by getting help in therapy from a trauma therapist.  It could open up a whole new life for you without so much fear and pain.

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

One of my specialties is helping clients to overcome psychological trauma.

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.