NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 29, 2016

Fear of Abandonment Can Occur Even in a Healthy, Stable Relationship

In prior articles, I've discussed fear of abandonment in various contexts, including fear of being abandoned in therapy (see my articles:  Old Abandonment Issues Can Get Triggered During Your Therapist's Time Away From the Office and Overcoming Fear of Abandonment).  In this article, I'm focusing on the fear of being abandoned, which can occur even in a healthy, stable relationship.

Fear of Abandonment Can Occur Even in a Healthy, Stable Relationship

Fear of being abandoned in a relationship is usually associated with on-again, off-again chaotic relationships (see my article: The Heartbreak of the On-Again, Off-Again Relationship).

But many people, who are in healthy, stable relationships, also have fears of being abandoned--even when there are no signs that a spouse of partner has any intention of abandoning them in any way.

This fear often stems from early childhood experiences of feeling abandoned, whether it was a physical or an emotional abandonment (see my article: Overcoming Unresolved Childhood Trauma).

People who fear being abandoned when they're in a healthy, stable relationship often feel ashamed, guilty or confused about their fear because they're aware, on some level, that their partner isn't doing anything to cause this fear.

They might think of themselves as being "weak" because they don't understand that they have unresolved psychological trauma from the past (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on the Past).

Since the early trauma is unresolved, it gets played out, usually unconsciously, in the present.  It has nothing to do with "weakness."

It's easy to see how childhood psychological trauma occurs with parents who are predominantly abusive and/or negligent.

What is often not understood is that the past unresolved psychological trauma can occur in an otherwise loving childhood.

The memory of that trauma, whether it is explicit (conscious and remembered) or implicit (unconscious), can continue to have an impact into adulthood.

The following fictionalized vignette illustrates how fear of abandonment, which developed early in childhood, can occur in a stable relationship.

Fictionalized Vignette

Nina came to therapy because she was afraid that her fear of being abandoned would ruin her marriage.

Fear of Abandonment Can Occur Even in a Healthy, Stable Relationship

Deep down, she knew that Ed loved her and wanted to be with her but, at the same time, she felt overwhelmed by her fears that he would leave her--even though they were married for five years and there were no signs that he wanted to end the relationship.

She felt deeply ashamed of her constant need for reassurance that he loved her and didn't want to leave her.   She also worried about herself, "I feel like I'm losing my mind.  How can I know that he loves me and wants to be with and, at the same time, be afraid that he'll leave me?"

Whether he went on a business trip or went out for the evening with friends, Nina felt a growing sense of panic that she wouldn't ever see him again.  She tried to hide her fears, but they were so overwhelming that she couldn't help asking Ed for reassurance over and over again.

Nina was afraid that she was going to bring about the very thing that she was to bring about the very thing that she feared if Ed got fed up with her and left her.

Ed came for one session to give his perspective.  It was evident that he really loved Nina and had no intention of leaving her.  But after several years of enduring her insecurities, Ed admitted that it was taking a toll on each of them and their relationship.  He reassured Nina that he didn't want to leave her, but he hated seeing her so unhappy and he wanted her to get help.

In the following sessions, Nina talked about her family history.  There was nothing obvious that stood out to indicate that her parents were abusive or negligent.  On the contrary, they sounded like very loving and attentive parents.

Most skilled trauma therapists understand that there are often unconscious roots to fear of abandonment when someone is in a healthy, stable relationship.

One way to discovery the unconscious is to use a technique from clinical hypnosis called the Affect Bridge (the same technique is used in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and it is called the Float Back technique.)

Before using the Affect Bridge, the therapist must assess the client's ability to tolerate whatever difficult emotions that might come up.  This is a clinical judgment call on the therapist's part.

If she has doubts about the client's ability to tolerate strong emotions, the therapist will usually help the client to develop the ability to contain strong emotions as an initial step before doing the Affect Bridge or any other form of discovery work (see my article:  Developing Internal Resources and Coping Skills).

Using the Affect Bridge, the therapist asks the client to remember a recent memory (or a memory that still has an emotional charge) to bring up the emotions related to the fear.  Then, the therapist asks the client to identify those emotions and where s/he feels them in the body.

After the client has identified the emotions and where s/he feels these emotions in the body, the therapist asks the client to go back in time to the earliest memory of feeling this way--even if that memory seems to be unrelated to what's going on in the present.

When Nina went back in her memory, she remembered being a four year old child lost at the beach after she wandered away from her family's blanket.

She was standing alone, terrified and crying.  She remembered looking around and seeing hundreds of people, but there was no sign of her family.  She felt completely abandoned.

Fear of Abandonment Can Occur Even in a Healthy, Stable Relationship

A woman, who noticed Nina crying, offered to take her hand and help her to look for her family. But Nina wasn't sure what to do.  She remembered her mother telling her never to go with strangers.  At the same time, she was afraid that, on her own, she would never find her family and she would be alone forever.  This terrified her even more.

So, crying and shaking in fear, she walked with the woman to try to find her family.  After what seemed like a very long time, her mother, who was also worried and upset, noticed Nina and called her over.

By the time Nina reunited with her family, she was so upset that they decided to go home.

After that experience, as a young child, she never wandered far from her parents.  She also developed a fear whenever her parents went out and left her with a babysitter that they wouldn't come back.  She worried that they might die in a car accident or that there would be some misfortune where she would never see them again.

Her parents thought Nina would "grow out of it."  Also, as she got older, Nina learned to hide her fear of being abandoned, so it didn't seem to be as much of a problem.

After doing the Affect Bridge, Nina and her therapist talked about her earlier experience of feeling abandoned at the beach.  Nina was surprised at how similar these old feelings were to what she felt now in her relationship.  She was also surprised at the long lasting effect of this incident in an otherwise stable, loving family.

When she first started dating Ed, she didn't feel fearful that he would leave her.  But as the relationship progressed and she developed stronger feelings for Ed, she felt there was more to lose because of how much she loved him.

Many people who have fears of being abandoned unconsciously choose relationships where their partners will recreate their fears.  In other words, they choose people who will, more than likely, abandon them or betray them in some way.

In those cases, the therapy will focus on both the past and the present.  It will also focus on helping the client to make better relationship choices in the future.

But, as previously mentioned, this clearly wasn't the case with Nina.  Other than Nina's fear, which was based on the past, they had a good relationship, so the work was focused on the original fear that occurred when Nina was a child.

Using EMDR therapy, over time, her therapist helped her to gradually work through the original fear.

Since there were no other memories related to Nina's fear of abandonment, they only had to work through the one memory.

In cases where there were many instances of abuse and neglect, it's often necessary to work through many more complex memories.

Overcoming Fear of Abandonment

Once Nina worked through the original fear, she no longer worried about Ed abandoning her.  She described it as having a huge burden lifted from her, and she and Ed were happier than they had ever been.

Fear of being abandoned is a common problem that many clients come to therapy to resolve.

When there is no evidence of anything going on in the present to cause this fear, the work usually focuses on memories, which might be unconscious, from the past.

Before trauma therapy begins, trauma therapists must assess if clients are ready to do the work and, if not, help clients to prepare to do the work.

When the memories are unconscious, various discovery techniques, like the Affect Bridge, are used to help uncover the underlying issues from the past that are affecting the present.

Talk therapy alone is often not as effective as trauma therapy, like EMDR therapy, to help clients overcome this fear.

Getting Help in Therapy
It's unfortunate that many people suffer through their whole lives with a fear of abandonment, and they never get help.

As a result, either they continue to feel insecure in their relationships or they choose not to be in a relationship at all because their fear is so great.

If you feel stuck in your fear of abandonment, you're not alone.  You can seek help from a licensed mental health professional who has experiencing helping clients to overcome this fear.

Once you've overcome you're fear of being abandoned, you can live a more fulfilling 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 their fear of abandonment so they could lead happier, 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.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Fear of Abandonment: Leaving Your Relationship Because You're Afraid of Being Abandoned

Fear of being abandoned is one of the most common reasons why people come to therapy (see my article: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment).  For adults who have experienced early traumatic abandonment, the fear can be so great that, without realizing it, they abandon others first because they fear being abandoned (see my article: Overcoming Childhood Trauma).

Fear of Abandonment: Leaving Your Relationship Because You're Afraid of  Being Abandoned

A person who has experienced traumatic abandonment as a child can get easily triggered.  To someone who is looking at the situation from the outside, it might be hard to understand what precipitated this trigger.  But to the person who fears being abandoned, the fear is very real at the time.

Often, the emotional trigger is unconscious so that the person who fears being abandoned might not even know what caused him or her to react.

People who fear being abandoned will often say that they felt panicky at the time and would do anything to avoid feeling abandoned.  They will often describe the feeling as a sudden rush of emotion that comes over them which they feel they can't control.

Sometimes, in hindsight, when they no longer feel triggered, they say they realize that they overreacted to a particular situation.  But realizing this often isn't enough to prevent it from happening again because it's not a conscious response--it's an unconscious response.

The fear is usually related to an unresolved childhood trauma.  In other words, it already happened, but the emotions are so strong that it feels like it's happening now.

Even though a romantic partner can try to be understanding when this occurs, over time, s/he might give up on the relationship because it becomes too painful to keep going through one breakup after another, especially if the partner also has abandonment issues, which isn't so unusual.

So, unfortunately, this becomes a self fulfilling prophecy for the person who feels abandoned.  This becomes "proof" that his or her fears were real in the here and now and not just related to early traumatic experiences.

In order to understand this dynamic better, let's take a look a fictional vignette, which represents many different cases where these dynamics are common:

Cindy came to therapy because she was deeply afraid that her boyfriend, John, would leave her.  She told the therapist that whenever she felt this way, she would panic and want to leave the relationship before her boyfriend left her.

There were times when she could calm herself enough so that she could tell herself that there was no rational reason for her to feel this way.  At those times, she would realize that her boyfriend, who was loving and kind, gave her no indication that he wanted to leave her.

But there were other times when she tried to use the same type of self talk to calm herself, but it didn't work.

Contrary to everything that she knew about her boyfriend, she felt sure that he was going to leave her, and she knew she couldn't tolerate that.  So, she would end the relationship abruptly, telling her boyfriend that she knew he wanted to end it with her and she would rather end it herself rather than wait for him to end it.

Fear of Abandonment: Leaving Your Relationship Because You're Afraid of Being Abandoned

When Cindy was feeling most fearful, no matter how much her boyfriend told her that he had no intention of breaking up with her, she just "knew" that he would, so he couldn't convince her not to breakup with him.

When she talked to her therapist about it, in hindsight, she was able to describe how she felt "in control" of the situation during those times when she ended it.  She felt like she had averted a "catastrophe" in her life.  But shortly afterwards, she felt miserable because she missed her boyfriend and she regretted breaking up with him.

Cindy asked her therapist, "Why am I doing this?  Am I losing my mind?  How can I feel like I'm in control when, in reality, I'm completely out of control?"

As they talked about Cindy's family background, it soon became apparent what was getting triggered for Cindy.

Cindy was raised by a single mother and her mother's parents.  When Cindy was four, her mother moved away from their home town to take a job in another state where there were better employment opportunities.

Many years later, Cindy found out that her mother and grandparents were very ashamed of the fact that Cindy's mother, who never graduated high school, couldn't find a job in their town and she had to move away to take a job as a domestic worker in another town.  They were so ashamed of it that it became the "family secret" (see my article: Toxic Family Secrets).

Since it was the "family secret," no one talked to Cindy about this before her mother left.  Cindy's mother and maternal grandparents mistakenly thought it would be best not to mention anything to Cindy beforehand.  So, one day when Cindy came home from playing with a friend and she asked her grandmother where her mother was, her grandmother told her that the mother would be back "in a little while."

As day turned to night, Cindy became worried when her mother didn't come home.  Her grandparents responded by trying to distract her, but all Cindy could think about was that something awful must have happened to her mother.

Her mother and grandparents loved Cindy and they had no intention of hurting her.  They just didn't understand how damaging this would be for Cindy.  They thought "she's young, she'll get over it."

Fear of Abandonment

As days turned into weeks, Cindy became sad and angry.  She also felt guilty and ashamed because she thought she did something to make her mother leave her.

Until then, she had always been well behaved, but as she felt more and more frustrated by her grandparents' excuses about her mother, she would have temper tantrums, refuse to eat and refuse to go to bed.

After a while, when her grandparents saw that Cindy was inconsolable, they told her that her mother had to go away for a while and she would be back.

When she asked why, they wouldn't talk to her anymore about it.  So, Cindy assumed that they were lying and that, for sure, something awful happened to her mother and they just didn't want to talk about it.

Cindy became a very anxious child.  She remembered having nightmares where she would see her mother and ask her why she left and her mother would just smile and then fade away.

Several months after her mother left, the mother returned to the household, which was shocking to Cindy.  She remembered wondering if she was dreaming.  The mother and the grandparents didn't understand why Cindy seemed so shocked when she saw her mother.

After that, even though she normally slept by herself, Cindy insisted on cuddling with her mother and holding onto her mother's pajama top throughout the night.  She was so afraid that her mother would leave again that she felt she had to hold on to her.

Even though her mother remained in their town, Cindy never got over the feeling of being abandoned by her mother and always feared that her mother would leave again without telling her.

Years later, when she got into a relationship with John, she had a hard time whenever he had to go on a business trip. She feared that there would be some calamity that would take him away from her, like a plane crash, or that he would decide not to return.

There were so many things that would trigger her fear of being abandoned that John would avoid telling Cindy certain things too far in advance because he didn't want her to suffer the whole time.  Cindy came to realize that John would try to avoid telling her about his business trips too far in advance and this only made her more anxious.

Although he was normally patient, John was starting to feel exasperated because he didn't know what to do.  Cindy could see how frustrated John was and this was another trigger for her to worry about him leaving her.

At that point, John suggested that Cindy see a therapist to work on her fear of being left.

Cindy's therapist used EMDR Therapy to work on the current fear related to John and they eventually went back to her earliest memory related to her mother leaving (see my article:  How EMDR Therapy Works).

The work wasn't easy or fast, but Cindy had a felt sense of the connection between her current fears of being abandoned and the earlier, deeper fears.

Overcoming Your Fear of Abandonment

With EMDR therapy, she was able to work through her fears, both the current fear and the early fears of being abandoned so that it was no longer a problem for her.

Fear of abandonment is one of the most common reasons why people come to therapy.

This fear is usually related to earlier memories that get triggered in a person's current life.

Often, the fear can be so intense that the person would rather leave his or her partner or spouse first than anticipate being left.

This dynamic can repeat itself over and over again in different relationships until the trauma is worked through in therapy.

Experiential types of therapy, like EMDR, are especially effective in helping clients to overcome traumatic memories (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Can Help to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have fears of being abandoned, you're not alone.

Experiential therapy is usually effective in helping clients to overcome this fear.

Rather than continuing to enact your fears, you could work with a licensed mental health therapist who has experience helping clients to overcome trauma.

Once you're free from the effects of your history of trauma, you'll be free to live 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.

Over the years, I have worked with many clients to help them overcome their fear of abandonment.

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, August 15, 2016

How Compartmentalization Can Be Used As a Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy in Therapy

Compartmentalization is a defense mechanism that is usually discussed in negative terms.  Used as a unhealthy coping strategy, compartmentalization is usually used to avoid feeling the discomfort of conflicting thoughts or behaviors that are contrary to one's values or beliefs (see my article: Living Authentically Aligned With Your Values).

How Compartmentalization Can Be Used as a Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy in Therapy

There are many examples of how compartmentalization can be used to avoid feeling uncomfortable.

So, for instance, an otherwise ethical person might use compartmentalization to deal with conflicting feelings about cheating on her taxes.

Another person, who is usually loyal, might compartmentalize his guilty feelings about an extramarital affair.

But a healthy form of compartmentalization can also be used as a short term coping strategy to help you get through a difficult time.  The emphasis is on short term because as a long term coping strategy compartmentalization usually backfires, which I will discuss in the first fictional vignette in this article.

To a certain extent, most of us compartmentalize as a temporary coping strategy whether we realize it or not.  Just like many defense mechanisms, compartmentalization on a short term basis, can help you get through certain experiences in life temporarily so you don't feel emotionally overwhelmed.

Most of us have had the experience of having to put certain disturbing issues on the back burner temporarily to focus on what's pressing at the moment.

The alternative to putting certain issues on the back burner would be to try to cope with all your problems at once, the most pressing and the least pressing, all at once.

Not only would this be psychologically exhausting, but it doesn't work.  Trying to focus on everything at once means that you're not really focusing on anything with any degree of attention or clarity.

Fictional Vignettes
Let's look at two fictional vignettes.  The first one is an example of an emotionally unhealthy way of using compartmentalization and the second one is an example of a healthy way of using compartmentalization as a short term coping strategy.

Vignette 1:  Compartmentalization As An Unhealthy Coping Strategy
Bob was happily married, successful in his career and he had many friends.

Most people who knew Bob, including his wife, children, other family members, friends and colleagues, thought of Bob as being a loving, smart, friendly, responsible and practical person.

Their view of Bob was based on the wholesome way he lived in most areas of his life--except for one that they didn't know about:  His secret compulsion to gamble.

Not only did Bob keep his compulsive gambling a secret from those who were close to him, but he kept his own emotions of guilt and shame compartmentalized within himself to avoid feeling uncomfortable that he was engaging in behavior that went against his values and his beliefs.

Compartmentalization as an Unhealthy Coping Strategy

His compulsive gambling was a split off part of himself, like a modern day "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide."

This compartmentalization was not like having a split personality where the different aspects of a personality aren't known to the core personality.

The compartmentalization was more like a form of dissociation:  When he was gambling, he was fully immersed in that activity and he didn't allow himself to think of the negative consequences for himself and his family.  And when he was with his family, he didn't allow himself to think about the compulsive gambling.

This strategy helped him to avoid feeling the emotional conflict of behaving in a way that was shameful to him.

But after a particularly bad losing streak where Bob lost most of the family's savings and he was unable to meet his next mortgage payment, his worlds collided in a devastating way.

He felt the full negative impact of the guilt and shame that he was trying to avoid when he was faced with talking to his wife and children about his devastating loss.

Aside from dealing with his family's shock, anger and disappointment, Bob felt so emotionally overwhelmed that he considered suicide.  But when his wife's anger and sense of betrayal cooled off to the point where she could speak with him, she gave him an ultimatum:  Either get help or she would divorce him and take the children.

Shortly after that, Bob came to individual therapy to start picking up the broken pieces of his life and he and his family also participated in family therapy.

Vignette 2:  Compartmentalization as a Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy
Alice was going through an emotionally challenging time in her life.

She was trying to cope with the care of her elderly mother, who was partially disabled as a result of a recent stroke; her husband's recent job loss, and helping her son through the college application process at the same time that she was starting up a new business.

Compartmentalization as a Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy

Several months ago, when she began taking steps to start her own business to provide coaching to people who wanted to improve their public speaking skills, her life had been going fairly smoothly.

But within weeks, her husband was laid off from work, her mother had a disabling stroke and her son needed a lot of her attention choosing a college.

Initially, Alice felt so overwhelmed and emotionally paralyzed that she considered abandoning the development of her new business and going back to her old job just to have stability in one area of her life.

At the same time that Alice considered going back to her old job, she felt the full weight of how disappointing it would be for her to give up a long held dream that she was on the verge of accomplishing.

She talked to her husband and sons as well as close friends to get help with her decision.  But she got conflicting messages.  Her husband and sons encouraged her to persevere with her goals, but her close friends told her to play it safe and go back to her former job.

Not sure which way to go, Alice started therapy to get help.

After learning basic coping strategies, including breathing exercises, meditation and other self care strategies, Alice felt that she had a lot more clarity about her situation and she was able to mobilize herself.

She looked into her mother's insurance and discovered that they would pay for several hours of a home attendant's services. After talking to her siblings, they agreed to pitch in to help with the mother's needs.

Alice and her husband talked about their financial situation, which was good.  Her husband also felt confident that he would get another job with a former boss or, if not, he would use his extensive network of colleagues to find another job.

He encouraged her to go for her dream and not delay any further.  He also told her that he thought she could go back at any time to her former employer, who would love to have her back, if her business didn't work out.  In addition, he agreed to take a more active role in helping their son with the college application process.

As a result, Alice began the process of developing her new coaching business.  She designed a website and she began making contacts to market her business.

But every so often, even with her newly developed coping strategies, Alice felt overwhelmed, especially about not being more active in terms of her mother's care.

She talked about her feelings in her therapy, and her therapist helped Alice to see that her feelings that she "should" be doing more to help her mother were part of older issues in her family where family members were overly dependent upon her, even when she was a young child (see my article:  Working Through Emotional Trauma: Learning to Separate "Then" From "Now" in Therapy).

Alice and her therapist both agreed that, since she already had so much going on now, the current time wasn't right for her to work on her earlier unresolved trauma.  They agreed that they would put this issue on the back burner for now and her therapist would help her to temporarily compartmentalize her feelings so that she wouldn't be overwhelmed by them.

Whenever Alice began to feel guilty and ashamed about not doing more for her mother, she reminded herself that these feelings were based on her past (then) and had nothing to do with the present (now).

Whenever she did this, and sometimes she did it several times a day, Alice was able to put aside her worries and focus on developing her new business.

Alice used this short term coping strategy of compartmentalization until her life calmed down:  Her husband got a new job, her mother made progress in out patient rehabilitation to be more independent, and her son completed the application process.

After her life calmed down and after she began to get referrals for her business, Alice's therapist told her that she thought Alice was ready to deal with the early unresolved emotional trauma.

At that point, Alice asked her therapist why she needed to deal with it at all.  She felt she could continue to remind herself whenever she felt guilty or ashamed that this was related to her history and not to her life now.

But her therapist reminded Alice that using compartmentalization in this way was only a temporary strategy so she wouldn't become emotionally paralyzed.  It wasn't going to resolve her problem.  Sooner or later, there would be another life event that would trigger these feelings and it would be best to work on resolving the old trauma.

Her therapist talked about how soldiers who are in battle learn to compartmentalize their emotions so that they can be effective at the time.

But if these soldiers continued to compartmentalize their emotions once they got back from battle, they could develop serious emotional problems, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  This is why they need to get help in therapy to deal with the trauma of war--so that it doesn't have a lasting negative impact on their lives, including getting emotionally triggered, anxious and depressed.

Similarly, Alice needed to work through the unresolved childhood trauma so that she wouldn't continue to get triggered in her life.

By that point, Alice trusted her therapist and they began to use effective trauma treatment modalities, including EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Somatic Experiencing to help Alice to overcome the unresolved trauma (see my articles:  Somatic Experiencing: Tuning Into the Mind-Body Connection and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

By the time she completed, Alice worked through her unresolved trauma and she was no longer triggered by difficult life events (see my article: Psychotherapy to Overcome Unresolved Childhood Trauma).

Compartmentalization as Healthy Short Term Coping Strategy

She was glad that she was able to put aside the emotions that were paralyzing her so that she could eventually work through her childhood trauma when she was ready.

Compartmentalization, like most defense mechanisms, is a form of denial.

If it is used as a long-term strategy to avoid uncomfortable emotions associated with thoughts and behavior that contradict important beliefs and values, it will eventually backfire, as it did for Bob in the first fictional vignette.

When compartmentalization is used as a short term coping strategy with the understanding that the dissonant emotions are temporarily being placed on the back burner until there's a better time to delve into them, it can be an effective strategy under the guidance of an experienced mental health professional who can provide support and teach other coping strategies.

Depending upon a client's emotional state and what's going on at the time, an experienced psychotherapist can assess when it's the right time to work on resolving the problem so that a client doesn't get stuck avoiding it (see my article: Changing Maladaptive Strategies That No Longer Work For You: Avoidance).

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're feeling overwhelmed and you're having difficulty coping with your emotions, you could benefit from working with a licensed psychotherapist who help you in therapy to develop the necessary coping strategies and, eventually, when you're ready, to work through the problem (see my article:  How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Rather than using denial as a permanent strategy to deal with uncomfortable emotions, get psychological help so you can eventually work through your problems.

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 in my private psychotherapy practice to work through their problems to lead a more fulfilling life.

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, August 8, 2016

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

I've written several articles about mourning and grief, including: Coping With the Loss of a Loved One: Common ReactionsHolding Onto Grief as a Way to Stay Emotionally Connected to a Deceased Loved OneAllowing Room For Grief and Coping With Grief: It's Common For the Emotional Pain to Get Worse Before It Gets Better.  In this article, I want to discuss a different type of loss, the loss of an unknown father.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

There are many children today that are being raised by a single parent, usually a mother. Many of those children have never met their father.

Often, the unknown parent remains somewhat of a mystery.  Either the identity of the parent is shrouded in secrecy or the child might be curious about the other parent but senses that it would upset family members to bring it up, so s/he doesn't.

I've worked with clients who, after many years of having no contact with the other parent, find out that the parent has died.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

Having never known this parent, this kind of mourning is different from the loss of a parent with whom the child has developed a relationship.

This mourning involves the sadness, frustration and anger of what was missed and will never be--the relationship between the child and the deceased parent.

Many people who lose an unknown parent in this way feel deep sadness for never having sought out this parent or might feel anger that the parent never sought them out.

The following fictional vignette, based on many different cases, illustrates how an individual suffers with this loss and how therapy can be helpful to cope:

Bill grew up as an only child.  He was raised by his single mother, his maternal grandmother and maternal aunt, who all lived in the same household.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

When he was a young child, Bill tried to ask about his father, but whenever he asked his mother, aunt or grandmother, they told him to stop asking questions (see my article: Toxic Family Secrets).

Even though he wanted to know where his father was and why he wasn't around, Bill knew that his questions made his relatives, especially his mother, unhappy, so he stopped asking and kept his sadness and curiosity to himself.

His uncles and other male mentors tried to take the place of his missing father, but Bill always wondered about his father.

After college, he moved out, got married and had two children of his own.

Not having had a father, he made sure to spend time with his children and being a good husband and father was very important to him.

One day, shortly after Bill's 35th birthday, he received a call from his aunt, who told him that she received a call from his father's brother in Atlanta letting her know that Bill's father died.

As his aunt was telling him the funeral in Atlanta, Bill felt a sudden shock in his stomach.  No one had ever spoken to him about his father and now he was hearing that his father was dead.  It all seemed surreal.

Bil felt a welling up of sadness and anger.  He didn't want to lash out at his aunt, so he just went on "automatic pilot" and took down the information about the funeral.  When she asked him if he was alright, he choked back his tears and told her that he was fine.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known 

After he hung up the phone, Bill just stared at the information he had just written down on a piece of paper.  Then, he crumbled it up in anger and threw it in the trash.

When his wife, Edna, saw him, she knew immediately that something was wrong and she asked him about it.  Bill tried to say he was alright, but Edna knew him well enough to know that he wasn't telling her something, so she kept asking him to tell her what was bothering him.

Finally, Bill broke down in tears and showed Edna the crumbled piece of paper where he wrote down his father's name and the information for the funeral home in Atlanta.

He didn't need to explain anything to Edna.  She understood what it meant.  She put her arm around him and said softly, "I'll go with you."

Before talking to Edna, Bill felt too angry to go to his father's funeral, but she persuaded him that it could be a healing experience for him and he might regret not going.

Later that night, Bill heard from his mother.  He felt the old fear he used to feel when he was a child whenever he wanted to talk about his father.  He didn't want to upset his mother by talking about his father now.

His mother's voice sounded strained when she asked him if he was going to the funeral.  Bill could hear anger and sadness in her voice.

When he was a child, although he was never explicitly asked to choose between his mother and father, he felt that asking questions about his father hurt his mother, so he kept quiet.  Now, those same feelings were upon him, even though he was an adult.

Bill wasn't sure what to say to his mother, so he told her that he was thinking about it.  There was silence on the other end, and then his mother hung up.  Normally, when his mother got angry and hung up on him, Bill would call her back, but he didn't know what to say to her, so he remained silent.

All the way to the airport and on the flight, Bill felt emotionally numb.  He didn't know what to think or say.  Edna told him to take it one step at a time and not to think too much about what might happen or how he might feel.

So many thoughts were swirling around his head, "Why?" "Why have I never met my father before?"  "Why didn't he seek me out?"  "Why was my father kept a secret from me?" "Why didn't I seek him out once I became an adult?  Now it's too late.  He's dead.  Am I a terrible person?  Was he?"

They were met at the airport by Bill's uncle, who had a strong resemblance to Bill, "I'm your Uncle Joe, your father's younger brother."  Then, he gave Bill and Edna big hugs and greeted the children.

On the car ride, Bill thought it was so strange that, even though he had never met his Uncle Joe before, he felt like he had known him all his life.

As Joe drove them to his house, he filled Bill in on the Bill Sr's final days in the hospital after he made a massive heart attack.  He told Bill that his father never forgot him and always wanted to connect with him, but Bill's mother wouldn't allow it.  She sent back all of the letters that he sent to Bill unopened.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

Uncle Joe told him that his father didn't know how to reach Bill when Bill was an adult.  He told him that he hoped to see Bill before he died, but he knew that Bill's mother would never tell Bill that he called, and then the end came too quickly.

Uncle Joe was the relative who called Bill's maternal aunt to let her know that Bill Sr. died.  Joe was surprised that Bill's aunt told him about the call, but he was glad that she did.

Bill felt such a mixture of emotions, but he tried to stay calm.

When they got to the house, Joe took Bill aside and handed Bill a stack of letters that were returned to Bill Sr. unopened.  Bill stuffed the letters in his luggage without even looking at them.

Throughout the course of the next few days, Bill met his father's side of the family--many uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews.  He also met two younger half-brothers.  Everyone embraced him warmly and Bill was very moved by it all.  He had no idea that he had so many relatives on his father's side.

When Bill and Edna went to the funeral home with the other family members, Bill was stunned to see how much he looked like his father.  It was like looking at a picture of what he would look like in 25 years.

Waves of deep sadness went through him as he looked at this man, who was his father.

Before he left, his relatives promised to stay in touch.  They also made him promise to come to the next family reunion in the summer.

When he got back to New York, Bill felt overwhelmed by his emotions, alternating between sadness, anger, confusion and frustration.

While he was in Atlanta, he heard many stories about his father, some of them were sad and others were funny.  He found out that his parents were together until he was one years old and then they split up after his mother found out that Bill Sr. cheated on her.  He moved back to live with his family in Atlanta after that, but he longed to see the son he left behind in New York.

Now that Bill was back home in New York, all of these stories were whirling around in his head and he didn't know what to make of them.  He wished he had known these stories when he was a young boy.

After Bill had many sleepless nights, his wife suggested that he go to therapy.

After Bill developed a rapport with his therapist, he brought the unopened letters to their sessions.  He read one letter at a time in each session because it felt too overwhelming to read more.

From those letters, Bill could feel his father's anguish at being separated from him and his longing to reconnect.

Over time, Bill began to mourn the loss of his father, a man he felt he was just getting to know from his father's letters and from contact with his paternal family.  He also mourned for his younger self from childhood, who carried the weight of the loss without being able to talk to anyone about it.

Working through his grief included forgiving his mother for not allowing his father to have contact with him.  Bill came to see that she was very hurt about the infidelity and she thought she was protecting Bill from his father.

Eventually, Bill and his mother were able to have a heart-to-heart talk.  She was no longer angry that he went to his father's funeral, and she apologized for keeping his father away from him.  Bill could see that, even after all of these years, she was still hurt about the pain that Bill Sr. caused her.

After a while, his mother told him more stories about his father.  Some were sad, but many stories were positive and funny. He noticed that much of her anger towards Bill Sr. was starting to dissipate as she recalled their good memories together.

Mourning the Death of a Father You've Never Known

Bill continued to attend his therapy sessions to process his feelings and this change in his relationship with his mother.

Gradually, the raw pain of his grief began to subside.  He was left with the feeling, now more than ever, that he wanted to be a good husband and father, and that time with his family was precious.

Mourning for a parent who was never known is a different experience than mourning for a parent that you have a relationship with all of your life.

Many people, who haven't had this experience, find it difficult to understand why anyone would be sad for the loss of a parent that you have never known.

But this loss goes much deeper than can be seen on the surface.  It's the loss of what was often longed for and never known and, after the death, the loss of what never will be.

In many families, this type of loss involves a family secret, and even young children can sense that it's a taboo topic.

In order to spare the feelings of the other parent, a child will often clam up and bear his or her feelings alone.  This is a very lonely, sad and overwhelming endeavor for any child.

Getting Help in Therapy
Trying to avoid the pain and stuffing your feelings can result in compromising your health and mental health as well as your close relationships.

Psychotherapy can help you to cope with this loss and come through the cycle of mourning with a deeper understanding of yourself, your lost parent and your family.

Therapy can also help you to work through the grief so you can live a more emotionally authentic life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist wh 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.

Also see my article: Deciding Whether or Not to Reconcile With Your Father.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Time Doesn't Heal All Wounds

The old adage, "Time heals all wounds" isn't always applicable, especially for people who experience psychological trauma.  Adults who have unresolved childhood trauma can get emotionally triggered without even realizing what's happening to them (see my article: Overcoming Childhood Trauma That Affects Your Adult Relationships).

Time Doesn't Heal All Wounds

When people get emotionally triggered, their reactions to the current situation are often out of proportion to what's going on in the present because they're not only reacting to what's going on now, they're also reacting to the past without knowing it (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Experiences From the Past).

Although they might realize that they're overreacting to the current situation, they don't understand why or how to overcome these reactions.

This often creates a sense of shame and confusion about their emotional experience.  Eventually, if they are getting triggered by relationships, it can lead to an avoidance of relationships altogether to avoid repeating the cycles of feeling ashamed and confused.

Unresolved trauma often leads to a pattern of choosing unhealthy relationships as people try to unconscious work through the old trauma (see my article:  Falling in Love With Mr. Wrong Over and Over Again).

Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario, which is based on many different cases:

Ann had no problems meeting men and getting into relationships, but she tended to choose men who were emotionally unreliable.

Each time she got into a relationship, things seemed to go well at first.  But whenever anything came up where Ann needed emotional support from a boyfriend, each of these boyfriends failed her.

Ann had been in her relationship with Bob for several months when she found out that she wasn't getting a promotion that she had worked so hard to get.

Feeling disappointed and frustrated, she called Bob and asked him to come over because she didn't feel like being alone.

But Bob responded by telling Ann that she was being "childish" and "needy." He told her that she needed to learn to handle disappointments and then he hung up abruptly.

Throughout their relationship, Ann had been the one who was emotionally supportive of Bob throughout his problems with his siblings and problems with his boss.  She had never asked him to be supportive of her before, so she was shocked and hurt by his response.

After Bob hung up on her, Ann felt herself starting to panic.  Her heart was racing.  Her breathing was shallow.  She felt like the room was spinning around her.

Time Doesn't Heal All Wounds

She didn't know what to do, so she called Bob back and begged him to talk to her, but he told her to stop being "dramatic" and hung up on her again.

This cycle of Ann calling and Bob hanging up on her went on for several minutes.  It made Ann feel increasingly anxious and hurt.

Finally, Ann called a friend, who heard how upset Ann was and came right over to comfort her.

At that point, Ann could barely speaking because she was crying so hard.  Her friend stayed with her, comforting and reassuring her.

When Ann calmed down, she felt very ashamed of her reaction.  Her friend, who knew Ann's history, suggested that Ann see a therapist.

Time Doesn't Heal All Wounds

After Ann and her therapist established a therapeutic rapport, her therapist used a therapeutic method called the Affect Bridge to trace back her earliest experience of being traumatized in this way.

Ann's earliest memory was of being very scared as a young child when her parents went out and left her alone. This happened many times throughout Ann's early childhood.

No matter how much Ann begged her parents not to leave her alone, they dismissed her fear by telling her that she was being "childish" (the fact that she was actually a child and behaving normally didn't occur to them).

Ann was relieved to understand the connection between current feelings and the past.  But understanding the connection between the past and the present is never enough to resolve the problem.  Her therapist told her that she needed to work on the unresolved early childhood trauma so she wouldn't keep repeating the trauma as an adult.

Her therapist also told Ann that she needed to develop greater awareness about the types of men that she chose because she was caught in a recurring pattern of choosing men who were emotionally unreliable and who abandoned her.

At that point, Bob had told Ann that he couldn't deal with her "neediness" and he broke up with her.  Ann felt deeply ashamed and kept pleading with Bob to take her back.

When her therapist explored this with Ann, Ann began to understand that Bob, and the other men that she chose in the past, were incapable of being emotionally supportive.  And even if Bob took her back, she would soon face a similar situation where he would disappoint, hurt and abandon her again.

Ann's therapist introduced Ann to EMDR Therapy, and over the course of their work together, they worked through her early unresolved psychological trauma.

By the time Ann worked through the trauma, she was much more compassionate towards her younger self (see my article: Having Compassion For the Child That You Were).

She also understood that she had been unconsciously recreating these dynamics over and over again in her romantic relationships by choosing men that would eventually abandon her emotionally.

Working Through Psychological Trauma in Therapy

With the trauma worked through in therapy, Ann no longer had the unconscious need to repeat this pattern, so she was eventually able to make healthier choices and entered into a new, healthy relationship (see my article: Choosing Healthier Romantic Relationships).

Many emotional wounds don't heal with time, as the old saying goes, especially if these emotional wounds have their roots in early unresolved trauma.

People, who have unresolved childhood trauma, will often recreate situations, especially in relationships, where they continue to get emotionally triggered again and again.

People in these circumstances usually aren't aware that they are recreating these situations because these dynamics are unconscious and out of their awareness.

Getting emotionally triggered often leads to feelings of shame and confusion.

It's usually not until they seek help from a psychotherapist, who specializes in helping clients to overcome emotional trauma, that they begin to understand.

But understanding, while important, isn't enough to resolve their problems.

People who get continually triggered by unresolved trauma need to work through the original trauma with a form of therapy that is designed specially to heal trauma, like EMDR Therapy.

Once the unresolved trauma is worked though in therapy, people are free of their traumatic history and able to make healthier choices in their lives.

Getting Help in Therapy
If vignette in this article resonates with you, you could benefit from working with a trauma therapist (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Once you are free of the trauma, you can lead a more fulfilling 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 work through many different types of 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.