NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, September 19, 2016

An Unconscious Identification with a Loved One Can Create an Obstacle to Change

People who start therapy often wonder why it's so hard to change, so I want to address one of the major reasons why people have problems changing, which is an unconscious identification with a loved one.

An Unconscious Identification With a Loved One Can Create an Obstacle to Change

From the time that we're infants, we learn to identify with our caregivers, usually our parents.  Even as adults, we can continue to identify with loved ones.

The identification can include values, opinions, thoughts, feelings, habits and lifestyle choices.

The following fictional vignette, which is a composite of many different cases, provides an example of someone who comes to therapy to make a change, but who encounters an obstacle within himself that makes it difficult for him to change.

Rick came to therapy after his doctor advised him to stop smoking or he would face increasingly debilitating health consequences in addition to the ones he was already experiencing, including severe headaches, problems breathing and a persistent cough that wouldn't go away (see my article:  Do You Want to Stop Smoking?).

Struggling with Health Consequences of Smoking 

Before coming to therapy, Rick tried to stop smoking on his own.  But even though he wasn't feeling well because he was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day for several years, he couldn't stop.

He tried the nicotine patch and nicotine gum.  He tried to go "cold turkey," but nothing worked for him.  His wife pleaded with him to stop, to no avail.

Rick came for clinical hypnosis as a last resort.  He didn't have much faith that hypnosis would help him, but he was feeling desperate and decided to give it a try.

I began, as I often do with people who want to stop smoking, by asking Rick about his motivation to stop smoking.  He told me that he knew that he "should" because of his doctor's warning and his wife was also unhappy about his smoking.

Based on Rick's tone and the shrug of his shoulders, I could tell that his internal motivation wasn't strong, and he admitted this.  His motivation was mostly external as opposed to a strong internal motivation that is often needed to help people to stop smoking or to make other difficult changes.

 I took a history of Rick's use of tobacco, including his many attempts to stop on his own (see my article:  Becoming a Successful Nonsmoker).

We also discussed his pattern of smoking (when he smokes, what time, how often, etc) with the idea of using "pattern interruption" as a way to help him to break his habit.

As part of the pattern interruption, Rick agreed to change cigarette brands and to change where he smoked.  Interrupting the pattern in the rituals that Rick had for smoking was somewhat successful.  He was able to reduce his use from two packs to a pack a day and, a few sessions later, he reduced it to half a pack per day.

This was more than Rick had ever been able to do on his own.  He was also surprised that his cravings were reduced.  But, try as he might, he couldn't stop smoking altogether, and I realized that there was probably a strong unconscious underlying reason that was undermining our efforts.

In order to discover what Rick liked about smoking, he agreed to allow me to do a hypnotic induction.  While in a light hypnotic state, Rick expressed feeling very relaxed and, at the same time, he maintained a dual awareness of both his relaxed state and that he was sitting on a couch in my office.

I asked Rick to go back in his mind to the first time that he smoked and enjoyed it.  Rick remembered a pleasant summer day sitting on his grandfather's porch with his father and grandfather.  He remembered that it was after a great dinner that his grandmother had made and his grandfather was telling funny stories about his childhood.

He remembered how they all joked and laughed and how he realized that day how much he loved his father and grandfather.  He was particularly aware on that day of the strong bond he felt with them and how being allowed to sit with them, while the women in the family were in the house, made him feel proud, as if he was part of this exclusive "club"for the men in the family.

Many other similar happy memories of being with his grandfather and father came to his mind.  Just thinking of those memories brought tears to Rick's eyes.

Afterwards, as part of the debriefing in the session, Rick talked about how surprised he was to realize that when he smoked, he continued to feel a bond with his father and grandfather, both of whom he missed very much since they died.

No wonder it was so hard for Rick to give up smoking.  He had an unconscious identification with his father and grandfather through smoking cigarettes and it helped him feel connected to them even though they were both dead.

As he continued to talk about these two important men in his family, Rick said they were the two most important people in his life.  Then, he cried to think that he might give up this habit that kept him feeling connected to them.

During the next session, Rick and I talked about the strong bond that he felt with his teenage sons.  He often spent a lot of time with his sons and it was obvious that he was proud of them and loved them very much.

I asked Rick how he would feel if his sons began smoking.  Rick dismissed this idea.  He said that, even though he smoked, he had always told his sons not to smoke, and they promised him they never would start.  The idea of his sons smoking was so disturbing to him that he couldn't even consider the idea.

I told Rick, as tactfully as I could, that children learn more from what they see their parents do than what their parents tell them to do.  And, just like he started smoking as a way to bond with his father and grandfather, his children could do the same.

Rick acknowledged that this could happen, but he doubted that it would.  But if it did, he would never want to pick up a cigarette again because seeing his sons smoke would upset him too much.

By the end of that session, Rick began thinking about his place in the family--now that his father and grandfather were gone, he was the patriarch in the family and he wanted to set a good example for his sons.

When Rick came back the following week, he looked upset.  He told me that he was shocked to learn from his wife that his younger son, John was smoking and he had been keeping it a secret--until Rick's wife found a pack of cigarettes in John's pants pocket as she was sorting the laundry.

He said that after she told him about their son smoking, he sat by himself in the kitchen for a long feeling sad and upset.

How an Unconscious Identification with a Loved One Can Create an Obstacle to Change

He knew that if he confronted his son in an angry way, it would seem hypocritical to John.  So, he decided that, once and for all, he was going to give up smoking.  Hearing that his younger son had taken up smoking provided Rick with the motivation he needed to stop.  With the help of hypnotic suggestions, and his motivation to change Rick was able to stop smoking.

Several months later, when I followed up with Rick, he told me that he continued to be a successful nonsmoker and, shortly after he stopped, his son, John, also stopped.  Rick told me how proud he felt that he could "kick the habit" and he thought that his father and grandfather would also be very proud of him.  That feeling--that his father and grandfather would be proud of him--was another strong motivator for him to remain a successful nonsmoker.

Although the vignette above is a composite of many different cases, it has been my experience that, in many instances, an unconscious identification with a loved one can create an obstacle to change.

These identifications are usually not apparent at first.  A therapist, who is skilled at doing discovery work, can help clients to uncover the unconscious obstacle.

An Unconscious Identification with a Loved One Can Create an Obstacle to Change

As in the case with "Rick," a behavior or habit that represents a strong identification is often hard to change.

But, similar to the vignette above, if clients discover an even more compelling reason to change, as "Rick," that reason can help to transcend the original obstacle.

Getting Help in Therapy
Obstacles to change often include conscious and unconscious factors.

It is usually difficult to discover the unconscious factors on your own, which is one of the reasons why people come to therapy.

If you've having difficulty making changes, you could benefit from working with a skilled therapist who has experience helping clients to discover and overcome unconscious obstacles.

Discovering the unconscious obstacle is an initial step.  Developing the motivation to transcend the obstacle is what often leads to transformation.

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.