NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, April 6, 2018

Seeing Yourself as a Loner vs. Experiencing Yourself as Not Belonging

In my prior articles, Seeing Yourself as "Independent" vs. Feeling Shame For Feeling Like a Burden and Seeing Yourself as "Rational" vs. Feeling Shame For Not Being Able to Feel, I discussed how people often use pride-based defense mechanisms to ward off deeper problems.  Continuing with the theme of pride-based defense mechanisms, I'm focusing on the defense used by people who see themselves as loners vs. the deeper issue of feeling that they don't belong.

Seeing Yourself as a Loner vs. Experiencing Yourself as Not Belonging

Before I go on, I want to emphasize that the ability to be alone is an important psychological development, so I'm not saying that enjoying solitude is a problem (see my article: On Being Alone).

I am referring to people who defensively ward off deeper feelings of being an outsider or not belonging and who label themselves as a loner in order not to deal with those deeper, more problematic feelings that involve shame.

Of course, like most other things, being a loner is on a continuum, and different people who identify themselves as loners can mean different things.  There are loners who do have close relationships, but there is often a wariness of getting too close to people.

Like the people who take on the other pride-based identifications, like being "independent," which is really a pseudo-independence, and people who pride themselves as being "rational" when, in reality, they have problems with certain emotions that are unpleasant for them (like anger and sadness), people who take on the pride-based identification of being a loner often develop this defense mechanism at an early age as a way to cope with difficult family dynamics.

Most people, who use being a loner as a defense mechanism against feeling a chronic sense of not belonging, don't know that they're using a defense mechanism because the defense mechanism is unconscious.  In addition, they usually don't attend psychotherapy, except when other issues interfere with their lives or when they get an ultimatum from someone important in their life.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Seeing Yourself as a Loner vs. Experiencing Yourself as Not Belonging
The following fictional vignette is typical of the dynamics which I've discussed above and illustrates how the pride-based identification of being a loner defends against a chronic sense of not belonging:

Ron, who was in his early 30s, came for a psychotherapy consultation after his mother moved away from New York City to live in Florida and he began to feel like "something was missing" from his life.  He never thought he would ever come for a psychotherapy consultation.  Although he wasn't convinced that psychotherapy would help him, he thought he would "give it a try" and he hoped to discover in therapy what might be missing for him.

Seeing Yourself as a Loner vs. Experiencing Yourself as Not Belonging

Ron told his  psychotherapist that he prided himself on being a loner.  Generally, he liked to spend time by himself, but when his mother lived in New York City, he liked to visit her every week or so to touch base with her.

When his psychotherapist asked Ron about his father and siblings, he said he was raised as an only child, and his father left the household when he was 12.  He had no contact with his father since that time.  Prior to that, he said, his father was emotionally and physically abusive with both his mother and him.  He recalled that when he was a young child of four or five, his father used to berate him and tell Ron that he wasn't his biological child.  He even threatened to put Ron in foster care.

When Ron was 12, he came home from school and found his father packing his things.  His last words to Ron were, "You're a loser and you're no son of mine," which was extremely painful for Ron.  

Later that day, he found out from his mother that the father told her he was moving in with his mistress of several years.  The father also told her that he had two younger sons with this woman, and that he planned to remain with them.  Until then, the father's mistress and his other children had been a secret (see my article: Toxic Family Secrets).

As a result, Ron grew up feeling inadequate.  As a child, he often wondered if he was really adopted and neither parent wanted to tell him.  He reasoned that this would explain why his father was so abusive towards him and told him that he wasn't his son.

But when he was older, his mother showed him his birth certificate which indicated that she and Ron's father were his birth parents.  But as a teenager, Ron continued to feel that he wasn't good enough because he believed that if he was good enough, his father would have stayed.  He never met his younger half-brothers, but he imagined that, unlike him, they were everything that his father wanted as sons.

He told his therapist that he considered himself to be a very spiritual person, and he would sometimes spend hours meditating or praying.  Aside from his mother, he identified God as being his primary emotional support.  He felt that God was always there, never abandoned him, and never let him down.

When he was in high school, he had very good grades, but he had some disciplinary problems for getting into fights.  He was evaluated by the school psychologist, who ruled out Asperger's or any other psychological disorders.  The school psychologist recommended that Ron's mother take him to see a child therapist to deal with the trauma related to the abuse, witnessing domestic violence and the father leaving the household, but his mother told Ron that she didn't think he needed therapy.  She didn't believe in therapy.  She was a religious woman, and she told Ron to pray instead.

Ron had a few buddies that he hung out with when he was in college, but he had little contact with them after college graduation, except for occasionally interactions on Facebook.  There were a few buddies that he hung out with occasionally to watch sports, but he didn't consider them to be close friends. These were people that Ron grew up with in his neighborhood.

There were two colleagues at work that he interacted with occasionally but, as a web designer who mostly worked from home, he tended to spend most of his work hours by himself, which suited him.

He had never been in a serious relationship.  Occasionally, he met women at online, but these relationships were mostly sexual and didn't last long.

Since his mother moved away, he began thinking that he might like to be in a relationship that was more than just sexual.  He was thinking that he might like the companionship, as long as the woman he was with gave him his "space" and didn't expect him to attend too many social gatherings.

By the end of the consultation, when Ron told the psychotherapist that he would like to come to therapy about once a month, she told him that psychotherapy sessions were usually weekly and, if he only came once a month, his progress would be very slow.  Reluctantly, Ron agreed to "try" weekly therapy sessions.

After hearing his family history, Ron's therapist recognized that Ron had a lot of unresolved childhood trauma that he was defending against.  She also sensed that, despite his saying that he prided himself on being a loner, he was deeply lonely and didn't realize it.  She knew she would have to wait until Ron was ready to broach these issues with him.

Initially, Ron was somewhat aloof with his psychotherapist.  He would talk about his attempts to date.  He said he was comfortable while the contact was online, but when he had to meet a date in person, he felt very self conscious and awkward.  Most of the time, he couldn't wait until the date was over.

But, recently, he met someone new that he really liked, a woman named Cathy, and he wanted to see her again.  He also sensed that she was interested in him.

From then on, Ron's therapy sessions were about how inadequate he felt as a man when he was around Cathy.  As a teenager, he always hoped that he would become an honest man, a man with integrity, and not an "abusive philanderer like my father."  But he also feared that he might grow up to be just like his father, which filled him with dread.

Since he met Cathy, he was surprised that he wanted to spend more time with her and that, beyond their sexual relationship, which was good, he enjoyed her company.

When she asked him to meet her friends at her best friend's birthday party, he felt hesitant because he didn't like hanging out with groups of people, but he knew it was important to Cathy, so he went.  He felt more like an observer than a participant at the party, but he also met a couple of people he thought were interesting.

In the meantime, Ron was feeling more comfortable in his weekly therapy sessions.  Over time, he allowed himself to develop a good working alliance with his psychotherapist, and he opened up more in therapy.

After Ron and Cathy were dating for almost a year, they were talking about moving in together.  Cathy initiated the discussion a few months before her apartment lease was up.  Ron knew this would be the next step in developing their relationship, but he felt deeply ambivalent about living with Cathy.

On the one hand, he would like spending more time with her.  But, on the other hand, he worried that she might not give him enough "space."  He also worried that, if she got to know him more intimately, she might get to know "the real me" and she might not like him (see my article: Overcoming the Fear That People Wont Like You If They Knew the "Real You").

This led back to the discussion about Ron feeling inadequate, and his psychotherapist recognized that Ron was now ready to talk about his earlier memories of feeling inadequate in his family.  So, after a few discussions about trauma therapy, his therapist recommended, and Ron agreed, that they use EMDR therapy to work on his unresolved childhood trauma, which was at the root of his current feelings of being inadequate (see my articles: What is EMDR Therapy? and How Does EMDR Therapy Work: EMDR and the Brain).

During that time, Ron and Cathy began living together in his apartment.  Before they moved in, they talked about what they each needed from each other to make things work.

Ron explained to Cathy that he liked to spend some time alone because this was important to him.  Cathy said she also had hobbies that she liked to pursue, so she didn't mind if Ron had his alone time.  She also talked about how important it was to her to have open communication with Ron about how things were going as they began living together.  This made Ron feel uncomfortable because he had never had such an emotionally intimate romantic relationship before, but he agreed to try it.

As Ron worked on his unresolved childhood trauma in therapy, he began to realize how much shame he experienced as a child because he felt inadequate and like an outsider in his own family.  He realized that he never felt like he belonged anywhere--not at home, not at school or in college, not at work, and not with his buddies (see my article: Feeling Like an Outsider).

He recognized the only people he didn't feel like an outsider with was his mother, Cathy and his psychotherapist.  He began to see how it was related to his unresolved trauma.

Over time, Ron worked through his childhood trauma in therapy.  As he did, his interactions with others became more relaxed.  He still liked his alone time, but now he was able to actually enjoy being around people rather than just tolerating their company.

He realized that this was what had been missing from his life, before he came to therapy and before he began his relationship with Cathy, were meaningful relationships with people.

His fear that Cathy would get to know him better and not like him dissolved as their relationship deepened.  They were even talking about getting married.

Ron began remembering some good times with his father, despite the abuse and abandonment, and told his therapist that he was surprised that these memories were coming back to him.  She told him that EMDR therapy might have opened up these other memories that he suppressed after his father left the household.

Ron became curious about his father and, with much trepidation, Ron contacted him.  He was surprised that his father was happy to hear from him, and they agreed to meet each other for coffee to talk.  That meeting was the first of many where Ron and his father began reconciling their relationship.

Ron found out things he never knew about his father, including how his father was severely abused by his own father as a child.  His father apologized to him for the physical and emotional abuse and for leaving Ron when he was a child.  Ron wasn't sure that he would ever feel comfortable enough to meet his father's new wife, the woman that his father left his mother for when Ron was a child.  But he was willing to keep an open mind about it for the future.

Identifying as a loner is often a defense for people who are unconsciously warding off deeper feelings of feeling like they don't belong.

As I mentioned before, an ability to be alone and enjoy your own company is an important developmental step, and not everyone who enjoys solitude identifies as a loner or falls into this category.

For people who have the deeper issue of warding off shame for feeling inadequate, the defense mechanism of identifying themselves as loners suppresses these painful feelings.

Most of the time, people with this problem never come to therapy.  Those who do come to therapy often come because they feel something is missing in their lives or a spouse or boss tells them to get help because there are problems in their relationship or at work.

When people with these issues come to therapy, psychotherapists must wait until these clients form a solid therapeutic relationship with them before doing trauma therapy or they will risk alienating these clients and also risk these clients leaving therapy prematurely (see my article: When Clients Leave Therapy Prematurely).

There is usually unresolved trauma at the root of these problems, and talk therapy usually isn't enough to resolve the problem.  A more experiential trauma therapy, like EMDR, is more likely to help clients to resolve a traumatic history  (see my article: EMDR Therapy: When Talk Therapy Isn't Enough and Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Getting Help in Therapy
There are some emotional problems are too complex to resolve on your own.  You need the help of a licensed mental health professional (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Finding the psychotherapist who is right for you might involve having consultations with a few therapists until you feel comfortable (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Once you have resolved the problems that have kept you stuck, you can free yourself from a traumatic history and 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 problems.

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.