NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Seeing Yourself as "Independent" vs. Experiencing Shame For Feeling Like a Burden

As I have mentioned in prior articles, defense mechanisms are important in terms of keeping you from feeling overwhelmed, especially when you're a child and you're in a physically or emotionally abusive family situation.  

But when you become an adult, these same defense mechanisms get in the way of having access to a full range of emotions.  Aside from having negative consequences for your emotional development, your relationships suffer as well.  

One common defense mechanism is developing a pride-based identification to cover up shame.  For instance, a child who was neglected or abused grows into an adult who sees himself as being "independent" (not needing anyone) as opposed to dealing his underlying emotions--experiencing shame and hurt for feeling like a burden to his family (see my articles:  What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?Overcoming Your Fear of So-Called "Negative Emotions," Emotional Survival Strategies That No Longer Work For You: "I Don't Need Anyone").

Seeing Yourself as "Independent" vs. Experiencing Shame For Feeling Like a Burden

It's understandable why a child, who has to fend for himself at a young age, would rather see himself as being independent and not needing anyone else.

But this is really a pseudo-independence because children can never really be independent in terms of their emotional and physical needs. Children who are neglected or abused might have no other choice, if they want to survive, than to try to take care of their own needs as best as they can at a great cost to their psychological development and, possibly, their physical development.

It would be too overwhelming for a young child, who has to take care of his own needs, to also try to come to terms with why his parents aren't taking care of him.  So, instead of dealing with the emotional pain involved with that, they develop defense mechanisms that prevent them from feeling overwhelmed, including pride-based identifications ("I'm independent so I don't need anyone") and emotional numbing (see my article: What Happens When You Numb Yourself to Your Traumatic Past?).

The defense mechanism of believing yourself to be independent, which excludes others, masks a deeper sense that the parents didn't take care of the child.  Emotional numbing can numb or mute most feelings.  By shutting off the hurt and anger, you also shut off emotions of joy and happiness.

In addition, you could grow up to feel that you can't trust anyone, so you have to take care of all your needs on your own.  This has negative repercussions for developing healthy relationships.  Some people, who grow up feeling pseudo-independent, unconsciously choose relationships where they have to take care of the other person.  Other people decide to remain alone.

Whether you choose people who you have to take care of and who will never meet your needs or you choose to remain alone, sadly, you can live your entire life trying to maintain the myth that you don't need others in order to avoid dealing with your traumatic history.

When people who believe themselves to be independent, without needing others, come to therapy, they often say they come for other reasons.  Their defense mechanism of feeling pseudo-independent is so firmly established that they don't see it or how it affects their lives.

A skilled psychotherapist usually won't address this dynamic directly at the start of therapy because, in most cases, it would be too emotionally threatening to a client who uses this defense mechanism if the therapist addresses it prematurely.  The therapist needs to assess when the client would be ready to deal with these issues.

A Fictional Clinical Vignette: Seeing Yourself as Independent vs. Feeling Shame For Feeling Like a Burden
The following fictional clinical vignette is based on many different cases and illustrates the issues outlined above and how psychotherapy can help:

Tom, who was in his early 30s, began psychotherapy reluctantly because he was having problems at work.  His director praised Tom's work, but he also told Tom that he needed to learn to be a team player.

Specifically, his director referred to a recent project where the tasks for the project were divided among Tom and four other employees, but Tom took on the whole project and completed it himself by working late nights and weekends.  The director reiterated what a great job Tom did, but he told him that Tom's coworkers felt they missed an opportunity to shine on this project.  In addition, they complained that Tom was aloof and avoided interacting with them.  As a result, the director told Tom that he wanted him to develop better relationships with his team and learn to be a part of the team rather than taking on the whole project.

Tom told his psychotherapist that there would be a big new project coming up in a few months where everyone on Tom's team, including Tom, would be assigned a role, and his director expected Tom to interact well with his teammates while he sticks to his assigned role.

Tom told his psychotherapist that he preferred to work alone, even if it meant that he worked many hours.  But his director made himself clear, and Tom didn't want to appear uncooperative or lose his job.  He needed to learn how to, at least, appear like a team player, but he knew this would be stressful for him, which is what brought him to therapy.

He said that he never thought he would seek help in therapy because, from the time he was a young child, he prided himself on being "independent" and "never needed anyone."  Similar to when he was a child, as an adult, he spent most of his time alone, and he preferred it that way.

When his psychotherapist asked Tom to describe his childhood, Tom wasn't sure where to start.  He folded his arms defensively, and asked his therapist what she wanted to know.  Then, he added that he couldn't see how his childhood was relevant to his current problem.

Not wanting to alienate Tom, his psychotherapist asked Tom a few brief questions about his childhood and assumed that, over time, she would find out more when he was ready.  Tom responded to his therapist's questions by saying, "I had a great childhood.  There were no problems in my childhood.  My parents did the best they could."

Over time, Tom divulged more details about his childhood.  He mentioned that he was an only child.  He said his parents were often out of the house much of the time.  His father was a musician who was frequently at gigs at night.  After the gigs, his father and band mates would go out to drink ("My father had a little bit of a drinking problem.  It wasn't really that bad"). He said his mother worked three jobs to make ends meet because his father's gigs didn't bring in much money.   As a result, Tom was mostly alone, so he learned to fend for himself at a young age, which he said gave him a great sense of pride.

His psychotherapist could see that Tom was a neglected child, who developed the defense mechanism of seeing himself as "independent" rather than neglected and he had an avoidant attachment style.  She could also tell that Tom was nowhere near being ready to deal with this, so she didn't want to address it prematurely.

After Tom talked about his parents, he looked uncomfortable and, even though she said nothing, he accused the psychotherapist of trying to say that he had "bad parents."  He told her that he had "the best parents in the world" and wouldn't allow anyone to say that they weren't (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Can Affect Your Relationship With Your Psychotherapist).

In response, his psychotherapist recognized that Tom was using projection as a defense mechanism--projecting his own unconscious and disowned feelings about his parents onto her. She tactfully pointed out to Tom that she had not said a word about his parents and wondered what was going on.

Tom seemed to recover himself and apologized.  He said one of the reasons why he avoided coming to therapy in the past was that he assumed that "all psychotherapists" blamed clients' parents, and he had strong feelings about anyone blaming his parents, "I won't allow anyone to say anything negative about my parents."

In the meantime, Tom was dealing with his situation at work by "pretending" to like his coworkers and to feel like he was part of the team.  He said he only did it to save his job, but he felt like "a phony,"which he hated.   At the same time, he admitted that, as he got to know his teammates better, he was starting to like them a little.

As previously mentioned, in his personal life, Tom spent most of his time alone.  Occasionally, he visited his parents to help them with chores and also to help them financially.  His parents were both retired now and dealing with medical problems.

His mother had arthritis so bad that there were days when she was in severe pain.  His father developed liver problems several years before, and his doctor convinced the father that he had to stop drinking.  Although they continued to live together, his parents lived parallel lives with their own friends.  Tom also suspected that his father was having an extramarital affair, but Tom used the defense mechanism of minimization by saying, "Well, he's unhappy, so I don't blame him."

Tom told his psychotherapist that he dated casually from time to time, but he had no real interest in being in a relationship.  When he wasn't helping his parents, he spent most of his time watching TV or playing video games alone.

It took several months for Tom to begin to trust his psychotherapist and to develop a therapeutic alliance with her.  He focused mostly on his work and avoided talking about his personal life.

One day, Tom came in and told his therapist that he watched a TV program where a sad young boy was left at home alone most of the time, and this boy would cry a lot when he was alone.  Tom said that while he was watching the program, he realized that he was crying too, but he didn't know why, "It was only a TV program.  I don't know why it would make me sad.  I know it's not real."

He said, even as he sat in his therapist's office now, he felt like crying about the TV program, and he felt silly about this.  In response, his therapist asked Tom if he would be willing to explore this further.  Tom said that, on the one hand, he felt silly wasting his time in therapy talking about a TV program.  But, he said, on the other hand, he realized that he was deeply affected by this program.

As they explored Tom's reaction to the TV program, Tom told his therapist that he felt sorry for the young boy because his parents left him alone and he was lonely and scared.  As he continued to talk about his emotional reaction to the young boy, suddenly he stopped, "Oh my God!  That boy was me!"

With this realization, Tom burst into tears.  He sobbed for a few minutes, and afterwards, when he recovered, he said he now understood why he felt so sad for the boy in the TV program.  He said this boy's story was also his story.

This sudden realization helped Tom to open up in his therapy.  Over the next few months, Tom opened up more about how sad and lonely he felt as a young boy.  Although he was careful not to blame his parents, he now understood how sad and scary it was for him to be alone so much when he was a child.

A big part of his therapy was mourning what he needed but didn't get as a child.  Waves of grief washed over Tom each time.  Afterwards, he said he felt relieved to allow himself to feel his sadness and, eventually, his anger too, at being left alone.

Another part of his therapy was coming to terms with having seen himself for so many years as being "independent," which masked his sadness and loneliness for feeling like he was a burden to his parents when he was younger.

Tom also realized that, on some level, he still felt like people would see him as a burden, and this was why he tended to remain alone.  He assumed that he was an unlovable person that no one would want.  But instead of allowing himself to feel these feelings, before he got to this point in his therapy, he defended against these feelings by having a general disdain for others (see my article: Overcoming the Pain of Feeling Unlovable).

 Feeling More Emotionally Authentic After Dealing With Underlying Shame in Therapy

Over time, as Tom continued to work on these issues in therapy, he allowed himself to form better working relationships at work.  He also took risks in his personal life to develop friendships and a romantic relationship.

Children who are physically abused or neglected often develop defense mechanisms to ward off the overwhelming sadness and anger they feel.  As a child, these defense mechanisms work to ward off overwhelming feelings at a time when children don't have anyone to help them to deal with the feelings.

A common defense mechanism is for these children is a pride-based defense of seeing themselves as "independent" rather than face the fact that they are in over their heads trying to take care of themselves.  This defense, which is unconscious, is much easier for them than the underlying shame they really feel for feeling like a burden to their parents.

When these children become adults, they continue to use this defense mechanism to avoid their underlying feelings.  They often have an avoidant attachment style that makes it difficult for them to form relationships with others.  But, in reality, what they perceive as "independence" is really a pseudo-independence that masks shame, hurt and anger.

Sadly, many people live their whole lives warding off their shame, anger and sadness to preserve their false sense of independence and a much-needed false image of "a great childhood."

Often, adults with a false sense of independence, due to childhood neglect or abuse, come to therapy for other reasons.  They might be having problems with relationships at work or in their personal lives.  They might think they have "communication problems."  But the reality is that the problems are much deeper, and it often takes time in therapy for clients to feel safe enough to explore these issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you think you might have developed defense mechanisms in childhood that are causing you problems as an adult, you could benefit from attending psychotherapy (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you in a way that feels safe for you to deal with these issues (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Many psychotherapy clients say that, once they have dealt with these underlying issues, they feel so much more alive and energized because they're no longer using so much energy to ward off emotions that are difficult for them.

Rather than suffering on your own, you owe it to yourself to get help so you can live a more authentic and meaningful 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 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.