NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Who Would You Be If You Overcame the Problems That Keep You Stuck?

Have you ever thought about what your life would be like if you overcame the problems that keep you stuck?  Who would you be?  See my article: Overcoming the Fears That Keep You Stuck.

Who Would You Be If You Overcame the Problems That Keep You Stuck?

As I've mentioned in other articles, most people begin psychotherapy with some degree of ambivalence, even if they're not aware of it at first.  The ambivalence includes a wish to resolve their problems and make changes in their life and a wish to remain the same (see my article:  Starting Psychotherapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious or Ambivalent).

Although the ambivalence is usually there from the start of therapy, most clients don't become aware of it until after they're already engaged in therapy.  It can also become an obstacle once clients actually start to overcome their problems and make changes in their life.

Clients with longstanding problems often express being happy that they're making positive changes in their life, but they might also be concerned about what this means in terms of who they are--especially if they have a strong identification with their problems.  Losing that identification can feel like they're losing a part of themselves.

Fictional Clinical Vignette:
Who Would You Be If You Overcame the Problems That Keep You Stuck?

When Jim started psychotherapy, he was in his early 30s.  He told his psychotherapist that he felt like there was a "wall" between him and other people, even people that he had relatively close relationships with, like girlfriend (see my article: How Psychotherapy Can Help You to Gradually Take Down the Wall You've Built Around Yourself).

Back when he first started therapy, he described himself as coming across as outwardly warm, friendly and gregarious.  But, within his internal world, he often felt fearful of making close emotional connections with others.  He was able to hide his fear most of the time, but he was very aware of his emotional struggles.

Although he was aware in an objective sense that he had nothing to fear from his connections with his loved ones, on an emotional level his fear, at times, was overwhelming and it was interfering with his relationship.

Jim knew that he loved his girlfriend, but he would become anxious and ambivalent about the relationship, especially when his girlfriend talked to him about moving in together when they were together for two years.

He also knew that he couldn't keep making excuses as to why they shouldn't live together "yet." And he knew that if he didn't resolve his fear of getting closer to his girlfriend, he might lose her, so he began therapy to try to overcome his fear.

When he began therapy, he described his relationships with each of his parents as being fraught with problems.  His mother could be warm and nurturing at times, but she was often emotionally disengaged from Jim and his older siblings.  From day to day, Jim and his siblings never knew what kind of mood his mother would be in.

He described his father as "a great dad" who taught Jim how to swim and play baseball when Jim was a child.  Later on, his father taught him carpentry.  He and his father bonded over these tasks, and most of the time Jim enjoyed his time with his father.  The problem was that his father also had an unpredictable temper and Jim and his family never knew when the father would blow up.  His never got physically violent, but he could be scary when he lost his temper.

Then, the father would shame and belittle Jim and his siblings.  Their mother was just as frightened of the father when the father lost his temper, so she wasn't able to protect her children from her husband's rage.  At those times, Jim felt very alone and he would hide in his room, even when his father was angry with another family member.

As Jim continued to see his psychotherapist, they discovered together that Jim's fear of getting close was related to the unpredictable moods of each of his parents.  At a young age, Jim learned to shut down emotionally and built an emotional wall around himself to protect himself from feeling too emotionally vulnerable.

As a child, this worked to keep his fear compartmentalized so he could function in the rest of his life.  But as an adult, he realized in therapy that he not only walled off his fear, he also walled off other positive feelings.  He also realized that, as an adult in a relationship, he couldn't continue to allow his fear from getting closer to his girlfriend (see my article: When You Shut Down Emotional Pain, You Also Shut Yourself Down From Potential Pleasure).

At the start of therapy, Jim told his therapist that, even though he wanted to overcome his fear of intimacy, he wanted to work slowly in therapy because he was afraid he would become overwhelmed.    Also, like every client, he needed to take time to develop a therapeutic alliance with his therapist, and this was a gradual process for him because of his fears of opening up.

After two years in therapy, Jim worked through much of his early trauma related to his family using EMDR therapy (see my articles: What is EMDR Therapy? and How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR Therapy and the Brain).

There were many times when Jim needed to use several sessions after one EMDR session in order to process what came up during the EMDR session and afterwards.  His therapist told him that each person processes differently, and this seemed to be what worked best for him.

With the childhood trauma resolved, over time, Jim was more open to getting closer to his girlfriend, who was patient with him.  He eventually moved with her, and he worked in therapy on the emotional challenges that he encountered once they were living together.

Progress in therapy often involved Jim taking two steps forward and one step back (see my articles:  Progress in Psychotherapy Isn't Linear).

Both Jim and his girlfriend both agreed that he had made significant progress in therapy, but they were also both aware that Jim continued to struggle in certain areas of their relationship.  After living together for two years, his girlfriend began speaking about getting married, which frightened Jim.

Periodically, Jim and his psychotherapist would review where he was in therapy as compared to how he was when he first came.  This was helpful to Jim to see his progress, especially when he felt emotionally stuck at a new level.

During one of these conversations with his psychotherapist, Jim told her that he was happy with the progress that he had made so far, but he was fearful of any further change.  He told her that he felt like he had "carried around" a particular sense of himself and that if he was no longer fearful of getting closer to his girlfriend, he wasn't sure who he would be.

His psychotherapist explained that this is a common problem for many clients in psychotherapy as they reach a certain point in therapy, and the timing is different for everyone.  Some people become fearful that they will lose their sense of self at the start of therapy.  For other people, like Jim, they become uncomfortable with who they will be when they are resolving the last remnants of their problems.

Working on the fear of losing his sense of self was much deeper work than Jim had ever done before.  Once again, Jim told his therapist that he wanted to go slowly now that he was at this new level of working through his problems.

His psychotherapist, who was a hypnotherapist and a psychoanalyst, helped Jim to navigate this fear in a way that felt comfortable for him (see my article: What is Clinical Hypnosis?).

Now that they were at this juncture in the work, his therapist used hypnotherapy to help Jim to imagine who he would be once his presenting problems were resolved--once he no longer feared getting closer to his girlfriend and he was able to take the next step in their relationship to get married, which was something that Jim wanted when he wasn't afraid.

Using imaginal interweaves, over time, his psychotherapist helped Jim to build his sense of self confidence.  Using imaginal interweaves provided Jim with an opportunity to imagine himself allowing himself to become more emotionally intimate with his girlfriend without the fear.

Who Would You Be If You Overcame the Problems That Keep You Stuck?

In other words, he was able to put aside his fear to use his imagination to imagine his future self in a loving relationship with his current girlfriend as his wife.  This "practicing" of his future self in his imagination gave him a felt sense of what it might be like not to be fearful.  And, after a while, Jim felt that he could go ahead and propose to his girlfriend without fear.

When people start psychotherapy, they're usually focused on the changes they want to make in their life.  It's only after they are either at the brink of making changes or actually making changes that some clients fear that their sense of self will change in a way that would be frightening to them.

Most of the time, these fears are rooted in a unresolved early trauma that needs to be worked out in therapy in order for clients not to continue to be triggered in the present (Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Your Triggers and Reacting to the Present As If It Was the Past).

With the help of their psychotherapist, many clients are able to begin letting go of the fear related to the past to make progress in therapy.

As they reach new plateaus in their progress, there can be new challenges, as there was in the fictional vignette above where Jim was able to get relatively closer to his girlfriend, but felt the fear again as he thought about he getting even more emotionally intimate with her.

Hypnotherapy with imaginal interweaves can be especially helpful for the client to "practice" seeing his future self and getting comfortable with his new sense of self while his therapist maintains an emotionally safe and empathic treatment environment in the therapy sessions (The Creation of the Holding Environment in Psychotherapy).

Getting Help in Therapy
Change is a process.  At various points in the process, new challenges can arise in therapy, including a concern about who would you be if you overcame your problems (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Working with a skilled mental health professional who is licensed can make all the difference between succeeding or failing in your attempts to make changes and to do it in a way that feels safe to you (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

If you're struggling with unresolved problems, you owe it to yourself to get help so you can free yourself from your history to live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome unresolved 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.