NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, April 29, 2018

Rediscovering in Psychotherapy What You Thought Didn't Exist

Psychotherapy often provides clients with an opportunity to rediscover in therapy what they thought didn't exist in their lives.  This is especially true in experiential therapy, like Somatic Experiencing, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Processing) therapy, and clinical hypnosis (see my articles: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the BrainWhat is Adjunctive EMDR Therapy? and Overcoming Trauma With Somatic Experiencing).

Rediscovering in Psychotherapy What You Thought Didn't Exist

Clients who come to therapy to work on unresolved traumatic experiences are, understandably, focused on the negative experiences they had, especially if those traumatic experiences go back to childhood.

But in experiential psychotherapy, they often rediscover that there were also positive, life affirming experiences that they have forgotten because of the preponderance of traumatic experiences that overshadowed everything else.

Rediscovering these positive experiences doesn't negate the traumatic experiences that need to be resolved in therapy.  But it gives clients a broader perspective of their lives.  It can also help them to see that they have internal resources that they didn't know they had.

As a psychotherapist, I have been delighted to witness this experience many times with clients in therapy.  Often in the mist of processing a traumatic memory, a client will suddenly remember that there was someone who did something that helped him or her at that time--whether it was a teacher, mentor, a relative or a friend. Or they will remember a transformative experience that helped them while they were enduring the trauma.  When a client has forgotten these positive memories, the rediscovery of them in therapy can be an epiphany.

These rediscovered positive memories aren't necessarily dramatic experiences, but their rediscovery often leads to advances in the processing of the traumatic memories.

Fictional Clinical Vignette
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates the healing effect of rediscovering positive memories within the context of processing traumatic memories:

After a particularly difficult family visit, Sandy began psychotherapy to deal with longstanding unresolved trauma related to her childhood experiences in her family and the emotional triggers that were set off by the last family visit (see my article: Why Is It That It's Often the Healthiest Person in a Dysfunctional Family Who Seeks Help in Therapy?).

She explained to her psychotherapist that she had a contentious relationship with her parents from an early age.  She said parents often belittled her and physically abused her when she was a child, which resulted in her low self esteem and anxiety.

Rediscovering in Psychotherapy What You Thought Didn't Exist

Since moving to New York City, Sandy limited her contact with her parents because their interactions were still contentious.  But, generally, she went home a couple of times a year during the holidays to try to maintain some type of connection with them, even though these visits often left her feeling disappointed and hurt.

During the holidays in 2016, she went to visit her parents for Christmas, and she found this visit to be the most challenging of all.

She and her parents never agreed on politics, and she tended to stay away from political conversations because she knew they would lead to arguments.  But, on the first day of her visit, her parents were so elated that their candidate won the presidential election that they could barely talk about anything else to Sandy, who voted for the candidate who lost (see my article: How to Cope With Difficult Family Get-Togethers).

Sandy was already reeling from the results of the presidential election, and she wasn't prepared to deal with the usual tension in her relationship with her parents as well as hearing them gloat about the election.  Tactfully, she suggested that they change the subject because it was upsetting to her.  But, as usual, her parents paid no attention to her feelings and her mother told her that she was being "too sensitive" and a "spoiled sport."

Sandy told her therapist that hearing those two phrases triggered childhood memories when both of her parents tended to disregard her feelings by telling her that she was "too sensitive" and a "spoiled sport" (see my article: How to Cope With Getting Emotionally Triggered During Family Visits).

Even though she was an adult, she said she felt like she was a helpless child again in her family home where she could neither fight back nor flee. As a child, she would stay in her room and fantasize about the day that she would be old enough to move out.  When she graduated high school, she was relieved to go away to college, and she never moved back into the family home.  

During the family visit that occurred shortly after the presidential election, Sandy told her parents that  if they didn't stop talking about the election, she would leave.  In response, they were dismissive and continued to disregard her feelings, so she packed her things and took a cab to the airport where she spent the Christmas holiday waiting to get a flight back to New York City.

She told her psychotherapist that it was a miserable Christmas for her.  But she felt she had to take care of herself by doing what she was unable to do when she was a child--leave her parents' home.  She explained that since that visit, she was flooded by childhood memories of her mother hitting her with a belt and her father taunting her for being "a crybaby."

That's when she decided that, in addition to coping with her current problems with her parents, she needed to work through her traumatic childhood memories so these memories wouldn't continue to get triggered.

Over the next several sessions, after Sandy and her psychotherapist talked about her family history and did the preparation work for trauma therapy, they began trauma therapy using a combination of Somatic Experiencing and EMDR therapy to work on past trauma as well as current difficulties with her family (see my article: Integrating EMDR Therapy and Somatic Experiencing).

During the trauma therapy, Sandy told her psychotherapist that her childhood was one long, bleak, lonely experience with no one to help her.  Not only was she an only child, but she had little contact with other relatives, who lived out of state.  Since her parents didn't allow her to invite friends over or to go to friend's homes, Sandy often felt lonely and unlovable as a child (see my article: Overcoming the Emotional Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

Then, one day in therapy, after they did several sets of EMDR, Sandy suddenly remembered a high school teacher, Ms. Scott, who took Sandy under her wing.  She spent time with Sandy after class and encouraged her to open her mind to possibilities beyond their town, including applying to out of state colleges (see my article: How One Person Can Make a Difference in a Traumatized Child's Life).

Sandy was moved in her therapy session by remembering the impact of her former high school teacher, "How could I have forgotten how much Ms. Scott helped me?"

She said that if it had not been for the encouragement of Ms. Scott, she probably would have never applied to colleges--much less colleges out of state--because her parents didn't believe it was necessary for her to go to college.  They told her that what was most important was for her to get a job, any job, so she could contribute to the household.

Ms. Scott helped Sandy to see that a whole new world was waiting for her.   And, when Sandy's parents refused to help her with the college application process, Ms. Scott helped her with that process as well as the financial aid process when Sandy was accepted into a college in New York City.

Sandy's psychotherapist noticed how Sandy's face lit up and how alive she seemed after she remembered Ms. Scott, so they used these experiences as internal resources to help Sandy through the processing of the trauma.

Sandy said that she had forgotten how kind and generous Ms. Scott was to her.  Looking back now on those memories, she realized that there was someone who made her feel she was worthwhile and lovable at that time.  Recapturing those feelings facilitated the processing of the past trauma as well as the current difficulties with her family.

Soon after that, Sandy contacted Ms. Scott, who had since retired but who continued to live in the same town.  Ms. Scott, who now asked Sandy to call her Betty, was delighted to hear from Sandy and they planned to get together for lunch during Betty's next visit to New York City.

A long history of trauma can overshadow positive experiences in a person's memory.  But experiential psychotherapy can create the therapeutic environment that leads to the rediscovery of positive, life affirming experiences even in a traumatic childhood.  The rediscovery of these memories can facilitate the processing of traumatic memories.

Getting Help in Therapy
Unresolved traumatic memories often get triggered by current experiences, which is why it's so important to work through the unresolved trauma (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Experiential therapy, like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis, is usually more effective than regular talk therapy to process trauma (see my article: Why Experiential Psychotherapy is More Effective to Overcome Trauma Than Talk Therapy Alone).

Along the way, it's not unusual for clients in trauma therapy to rediscover people and experiences that they forgot about who were helpful to them in the past.  Combined with trauma therapy, those past positive memories can provide the client with the much needed internal resources to work through the trauma.  

Rather than continuing to get triggered, you owe it to yourself to get the help you need from a skilled trauma therapist (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Once you have worked through unresolved trauma, you can 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.