NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, August 14, 2017

Emotional Survival Strategies That No Longer Work: "I don't need anyone"

Unresolved early childhood trauma usually leads to emotional survival strategies that were adaptive during childhood, but they are no longer adaptive for adults.  They also often lead to distortions in self perception.  It's not unusual for adults, who were abused or neglected as children, to become adults who deny their own emotional needs and reject emotional connections with others (see my articles: Understanding Why You're Affected By Trauma That Occurred a Long Time AgoGrowing Up Feeling Invisible and Emotionally Invalidated, Are You Feeling Trapped By Your Childhood History?Overcoming the Traumatic Effects of Childhood Trauma, and Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From an Adult Perspective).

Emotional Survival Strategies That No Longer Work: "I don't need anyone."

These survival strategies and distortions in self perception are unconscious.  Underneath them are a lot of fear, hurt, anger and shame.

One way to avoid feeling these underlying feelings is intellectualization.  When it is used to avoid unconscious emotions, intellectualization is a defense strategy.  More about this later.

These problems can begin early in infancy when the baby's primary caregiver is either shutdown emotionally, continuously misattuned to the baby's emotional needs, emotionally neglectful or abusive.

Even if all of the baby's physical needs are being taken care of, the baby still needs emotional attunement from the primary caregiver in order to thrive and learn to develop healthy attachment.

A baby, who makes many attempts to get a caregiver to be emotionally attuned, eventually gives up and shuts down emotionally.  Not only does the baby feel resignation about getting his emotional needs met, but he also gives up and dissociates.

If this is a pervasive experience in a baby's life, it will affect brain development as well as emotional development.

This survival strategy of dissociating is adaptive at that point for the baby because it would be emotionally unbearable to continue to yearn for love and attention that won't be given by the primary caregiver.

But this survival strategy, as an adult, is maladaptive and usually results in disconnection from oneself and others.

The dilemma for this adult is that he (or she) yearns for love and connection, but he's too fearful of getting his needs met, so he either (unconsciously) connects with other adults who cannot meet his needs or he believes himself to be "independent," someone who doesn't need other people.

As mentioned before, a common pattern for people with this problem is to either avoid relationships altogether by intellectualizing ("I only need my books") to negate the yearning for love and connection.

Fictionalized Scenario
The following fictionalized scenario illustrates these dynamics:

Shortly after Jane was born, she was left with her maternal grandmother when her mother moved from Florida to New York to find work.

Jane's grandmother did the best that she could, but she was often overwhelmed by taking care of her other grandchildren, her responsibilities in the house and running the family business.  As a result, she had little time to spend with Jane aside from meeting Jane's basic physical needs.

The grandmother was raised to believe that if a baby cried, the baby should be left to cry it out rather than being picked up, otherwise, the baby would be spoiled.

How Emotional Survival Strategies Develop in Infancy

So she left Jane crying for long periods of time in the crib.  Eventually, Jane would give up out of sheer physical exhaustion as well as a primitive sense that it was hopeless to keep trying to get anyone's attention.

When Jane's grandmother noticed that Jane was quiet in her crib and was just staring into space, she thought this was good.

To be clear, the grandmother wasn't trying to harm Jane in any way.  She just didn't understand the developmental harm that was being done by not responding to the baby's crying.  And, aside from this, a quiet baby is a compliant baby and was much easier for the grandmother.

When Jane was 10, her mother sent for her to live in New York City.  Even though Jane and her mother had no contact since the mother moved to New York City, when Jane arrived, her mother expected Jane to be affectionate towards her.

But, instead of an affectionate child, Jane's mother encountered a child who showed little emotional reaction to her.  Jane was obedient and passive, but it was obvious that she felt no emotional connection to her mother.

Jane understood that the woman she was meeting after so many years was her mother--she understood it as a fact.  But it had no emotional resonance for her.  She complied with her mother's rules and directives, but Jane remained emotionally disconnected from her (see my article: Adults Who Were Traumatized as Children Are Often Afraid to Feel Their Emotions).

Jane's mother thought of Jane's emotional distance as Jane being willfully disrespectful of her.  She had no understanding, as many parents wouldn't, that Jane's aloofness was an unconscious survival strategy that she developed at an early age to cope with the lack of love and connection from infancy.

Meanwhile when she was at school, Jane's teachers noticed that she tended to isolate herself from other children.  While other children were playing during recess, Jane sat in the corner by herself reading a book.

When Jane's teacher told her mother that she was concerned that Jane wasn't interacting with the other children, Jane's mother dismissed the teacher's concerns, "My daughter is here to learn.  She's not here to make friends.  It's better for her to read than to play."

Throughout high school, Jane's mother discouraged her from dating, "There will be plenty of time for that after you graduate from college."   Jane didn't mind because she felt no need to date boys or to make friends, "I have my books.  I don't need anyone."

During her first year of college, Jane kept to herself. At first, her classmates tried to befriend her, but when they saw that Jane wasn't receptive, they thought that Jane thought of herself as being "too good" for them.  Their friendliness turned to scorn, and they laughed and ridiculed Jane.

Although Jane pretended not to notice, she saw and heard their criticism.  Sometimes it would bother her, but most of the time, she pushed down her discomfort and told herself that she didn't care what they thought, "I don't need anyone."  Then, she would study harder in an effort to avoid feeling her loneliness, anger and hurt.

Jane graduated college with a 4.0 GPA, which she was very proud of and so was her mother.  But she didn't get any interviews from the college recruiters at campus.

Jane applied for many jobs after she graduated college, but she received no responses.  She wasn't  aware that many companies looked not only for good grades--they also wanted to see that students were involved in college activities, and Jane avoided any activities while she was in college.

Eventually, Jane found a job as a part time bookkeeper, which didn't require a college degree.  She worked in a small office by herself.

After a year, Jane found a full time bookkeeping job.  This allowed her to move out of her mother's home to become a roommate in an apartment with three other young women.

Jane didn't really want to have roommates, but she couldn't afford to have her own apartment.  Even though Jane had no interest in making friends with her roommates, one of them, Cathy, went out of her way to be friendly with Jane.

To her surprise, Jane realized that she didn't mind being around Cathy because Cathy did all the talking when they were together and all Jane had to do was be polite and pretend to be interested in what Cathy was saying.

After Cathy asked Jane many times, Jane agreed to go with Cathy to a silent meditation retreat.  Jane thought, "How bad could it be?  All I have to do is be silent."

But when Jane began the silent meditation at the meditation center, she was surprised to discover that she felt upset and emotionally overwhelmed, and she didn't know why.  She asked the center director if she could read books instead, but she was told that she had to focus on meditation.

After a couple of days of silent meditation with no other distractions, Jane felt so emotionally overwhelmed with sadness that it was unbearable.  She felt ashamed to leave early, but she couldn't bear being so overwhelmed.

When she got home, Jane tried to distract herself from her sadness by immersing herself in her books and going online but, no matter what she did, she still felt engulfed by sadness and she didn't know why she was feeling this way and why she couldn't distract herself.

After experiencing overwhelming sadness for a couple of weeks, Jane knew she needed help, but she wasn't sure where to turn, so she sought help from her medical doctor.

Although she felt very ashamed of her feelings, especially since she couldn't think of any reason for her sadness, her fear that she was "going crazy" got her to talk to her doctor.

Jane's doctor explained to her that there was nothing physically wrong with her and that she needed to address these psychological issues in psychotherapy.  Then, he referred her to a psychotherapist.

Getting Help in Therapy For Emotional Survival Strategies That No Longer Work 
Over time, Jane learned in therapy that, as an infant, she developed an emotional survival strategy of disconnecting from her environment as a way to deal with the environment that she grew up in.  Her therapist explained to her that this is called dissociation and it's what babies do when they are being raised by a caregiver who neglects or abuses them.

Jane learned from her therapist that this early emotional survival strategy was adaptive at the time because to continue to yearn for love and attention when none was forthcoming would have been even more emotionally painful when she was an infant.

Her therapist explained that Jane continued to use this emotional survival strategy as an adult.  Jane used books and other intellectual pursuits to distract herself and dissociate from her environment, but it was no longer adaptive in Jane's life--in fact, it was getting in the way of developing healthy friendships and relationships.

When Jane went to the silent meditation retreat, her psychotherapist explained, and she wasn't allowed to distract herself with books, her sadness about years of emotional neglect and disconnection came bubbling up to the surface, and this was what Jane was experiencing now.

The feelings were so strong that Jane could no longer push them down so, rather than trying to suppress them, Jane needed to engage in trauma therapy in order to heal.

She could no longer remain in denial about not needing anyone, which was a defense against feeling her longstanding sadness.  Jane saw this defense mechanism for what it was--an emotional survival strategy and distortion in self perception that was now maladaptive.

The psychotherapist talked to Jane about EMDR therapy. She also took a thorough family history and helped Jane to prepare to do EMDR (see my articles: Overcoming Trauma With EMDR Therapy: When the Past is in the Present and EMDR Therapy: When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough).

The work was neither quick nor easy (see my article: Psychotherapy: Beyond the Bandaid Approach).

But by the time Jane and her therapist began processing her early trauma, Jane trusted her therapist and, eventually, she was able to free herself from her history to lead a fuller life.

When infants are neglected or abused, they're able to develop survival strategies, on an unconscious level, that are adaptive at the time to ward off the devastating emotions that are the result of neglect and abuse.

Although it was adaptive at the time, these emotional survival strategies are no longer adaptive as an older child, teen or an adult.  These strategies keep people cut off from their feelings and in denial about their emotional pain.  It also keeps them cut off from other people.

Although they might believe that they really don't need anyone, this emotional survival strategy and distortion in self perception takes a lot of energy to maintain.

People often distract themselves from difficult underlying emotions with intellectual pursuits, drinking excessively, abusing drugs, gambling compulsively or engaging in other addictive and compulsive behavior.

When someone can no longer distract himself, these underlying emotions often come to the surface in a powerful way so that these emotions can no longer be denied.

Getting Help in Therapy
Various forms of trauma therapy, like EMDR therapy, clinical hypnosis or Somatic Experiencing are effective in helping people to overcome emotional trauma.

Rather than suffering on your own, you owe it to yourself get the help you need from a skilled psychotherapist who specializes in helping clients to overcome trauma.

By freeing yourself from a traumatic history, 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 specialize in helping clients to overcome emotional 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.