NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 9, 2018

When Idealized Heroes Falter

As a psychotherapist in New York City, who is a trauma specialist, I often hear from adult clients how disappointing it was for them as children, and even as adults, when their idealized heroes faltered.

When Idealized Heroes Falter
This topic often comes up when I'm preparing a client to do attachment-related EMDR therapy (see my article: How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain), and it's an opportunity to work through these issues.

As part of the preparation, I help clients to imagine a safe or relaxing place.  I also ask clients to come up with three people (real or imagined) who embody the qualities of being powerful, nurturing and wise.  I also offer the possibility, if they prefer, to name one person who embodies all of these qualities.

This is the resourcing part of the preparation phase of EMDR, and the three real or imagined people are used later on in EMDR processing, if necessary, as imaginal interweaves (as developed by EMDR expert, Laurel Parnell, Ph.D.).

Specifically, during the processing phase of EMDR, clients might run into difficulty and need to imagine one or more of the qualities embodied by these people to get through a difficult part of the trauma work.  Often these interweaves aren't needed if the processing of the trauma is going smoothly, but it's good to have them already set up before the processing of the trauma begins.

Depending upon their traumatic history, some clients struggle to come up with real or imagined people and I help them to come up with people who are meaningful in their lives either in the present or in the past.

It's often at that point that clients will talk about idealized heroes that disappointed them at some point in their lives, especially as children.

Sometimes, if these clients didn't process these disappointments with anyone before, their perspective about their disappointment can remain childlike, which is understandable because it's as if the disappointment is frozen in time.

At that point, it can helpful for a psychotherapist to help the client to develop an adult perspective about the former idealized hero who faltered, one that includes empathy and compassion if that's possible (see my article: Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From an Adult Perspective).

Fictional Clinical Vignette: When Idealized Heroes Falter
The following fictional vignette illustrates how an adult client in therapy can come to terms with his his disappointment about an idealized hero from his childhood:

Tom was in his early 40s when he began attending psychotherapy to deal with a traumatic history of emotional abuse.  He said he never thought he would come to therapy, but he realized that his history of emotional abuse was getting in the way of his having a relationship and he couldn't ignore it anymore.

After the initial consultation and sessions about his family history, the therapist explained EMDR therapy to Tom, including the various phases of EMDR.  They began the resourcing phase, which included coming up with a relaxing place and the three imaginal interweaves mentioned above (wise, nurturing and powerful people who are either real or imagined).

Since Tom experienced childhood emotional abuse by his father, it wasn't surprising that he had problems coming up with the imaginal interweaves because his whole world had been turned upside down by the emotional abuse.  The therapist told Tom that they could forgo this part of the preparation if he preferred, but Tom said he wanted to do this part and he would think about it between therapy sessions.

When he returned for his next psychotherapy session, Tom told his therapist that he remembered something that he hadn't thought of in a long time:  His disappointment in a neighbor, Jim, who was someone that Tom looked up to as a child and who was a friend and a hero to him.

Tom said that Jim lived with his wife in the same apartment building in Brooklyn where Tom and his family lived.  Jim was a mechanic and he had his own business a few blocks away from the apartment house.  He and his wife had no children of their own, but all the children in the neighborhood who knew Jim liked him.

On his days off, Jim would coach Little League games.  He was also active in the community, and he was instrumental in helping to set up the Police Athlete League (PAL) in Tom's neighborhood so the children had a place to play and learn.

The times that Tom liked best was when he and Jim would sit on the stoop to talk.  Tom felt he could talk to Jim about almost anything.  They would spend hours sitting on the stoop talking about sports, school, homework or whatever topic came up.

Tom never confided in Jim about how emotionally abusive his father was, but Tom sensed that Jim knew and that he was compassionate towards Tom and tried to be emotionally supportive.

Jim also talked about how when he was 18, he joined the Marines to get away from a difficult home life.  Afterwards, he said, he trained to be a car mechanic, met the woman who would eventually become his wife, and opened his own business with a partner.

Tom told his psychotherapist that from that day on Jim became his hero, and listening to Jim speak gave Tom hope that one day he would overcome his current circumstances at home.  It was at that point that Tom began talking to Jim about what he might want to do when he grew up.  It was the first time that Tom ever allowed himself to think he might be happy in the future.

Tom's friendship with Jim continued from the time Tom was in elementary school until he graduated high school.  It was Jim who encouraged Tom to participate in sports in high school and to apply to colleges.

Then, one day, when Tom came home on Spring break from college and he went to visit Jim, Jim's wife opened the door and told Tom that Jim wasn't there.  When Tom asked her where he was, she told Tom to come in and sit down.

After they sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity to Tom, Jim's wife lowered her eyes and told Tom that Jim was incarcerated for embezzling money from the business that he and his partner owned.  His partner pressed charges, and Jim admitted that he took the money.

When she raised her eyes, she could see that Tom was shocked and she said, "I know you idolized Jim.  I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but I thought it would be better for you to hear it from me."

He remembered that after she told him about Jim's incarceration, all he could say was, "But why?  Why did he do it?"

"There's no excuse for it, Tom," she said, "We were going through hard times financially.  After he was caught, he told me that he did it and planned to pay back every penny that he took, but he was caught before he could do that.  I can't believe it myself. It's so out of character for Jim."

Tom told his psychotherapist that prior to going home on Spring break, he had been out of touch with Jim for a few months, so he knew nothing about this until Jim's wife told him.  After he got over the shock, he felt deeply angry with Jim.

He thought about all the times that Jim talked to Tom about honesty and integrity.  After he heard what Jim did, all he could think was that Jim was a hypocrite and he was foolish for ever befriending Jim and believing in him.

He told his psychotherapist, "He was my hero.  He would have been the one that I would have chosen as a 'powerful' person, if he didn't end up going to prison.  After I found out what happened, I didn't make an attempt to ever reach out to him again."

Tom's psychotherapist could tell that, even though Tom was in his early 40s, he was stuck. His reaction to Jim was coming from his adolescent self and not his adult self.

They spent several sessions talking about how disappointed Tom was in Jim, and how he never saw Jim again, even after he got out of prison.  Eventually, Jim and his wife moved out of the neighborhood and Tom had no idea where they went.

Over the course of the next several sessions, Tom continued to talk about his feelings, and he mentioned that he was also having dreams about Jim.  His psychotherapist helped Tom to see that anger towards Jim covered over his deep sadness and disappointment (see my article: Discovering That Sadness is Often Hidden Underneath Anger).

Gradually, Tom began to see that, although what Jim did was wrong, Jim was human and he made a mistake.  He also realized that Jim never meant to hurt anyone and he must have been desperate to steal the money from his partner, even if he planned to pay it back, as his wife said.

Tom began looking at his relationship with Jim from an adult perspective.  His attitude towards Jim softened, and he was able to see that, even though Jim made a mistake that he paid for by going to prison, Jim helped him in many ways.  He realized that he probably wouldn't have studied as hard and gone to college if it hadn't been for Jim.  He also realized that Jim fulfilled an important role in his life at a crucial time, and he was grateful for that.

With that, Tom and his therapist were able to go on to complete the preparation phase of EMDR and process his childhood trauma of being emotionally abused by his father.

Eventually, Tom found out where Jim and his wife lived and sent Jim a letter expressing his gratitude for all that Jim had done for him when he was a child.  A few weeks after that, Jim invited Tom over to reconcile their friendship.

Tom could see that Jim had aged a lot since he last saw him more than 20 years ago, but he still had the same warm smile.

Jim acknowledged to Tom that he was wrong for stealing the money, regardless of his financial circumstances.  He also apologized to Tom for disappointing him.   Jim told him that when he was in prison, he often thought about Tom and some of the other children in the neighborhood, and he knew that he let them down.

Tom could tell that Jim was deeply affected by their reconciliation, and Tom felt the last vestiges of his anger slipping away.

People who are idealized heroes in our lives are human and have flaws, just like anyone else.

Even comic book superheroes have flaws: Clark Kent, who was Superman in the comics, comes to mind with regard to his powerlessness around kryptonite.  Despite his courage and superhuman  abilities, deep down he felt like an outsider because he was an orphan.  Those were feelings that he kept to himself.

Coming to terms with the faltering of an idealized hero can be difficult for a child, and it can even be difficult for an adult looking back on his experiences with a hero.

Parents can talk to a child about mistakes that the child made as a way to help the child to see the humanity in the child's hero.  But when there's no one for a child to process these feelings with, these feelings often remain frozen and somewhat childlike.

With the help of a psychotherapist, a client can look back on his disappointment that his hero faltered and learn to develop empathy and compassion.  He can also learn that it's not an all-or-nothing experience, and he can still appreciate and be grateful for all that was positive in their relationship (see my article: Overcoming All or Nothing Thinking).

Getting Help in Therapy
Psychotherapy can help you to work through traumatic experiences from your past so that you can free yourself from the trauma in your history (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

Rather than suffering on your own, you can get help from a licensed mental health professional who can assist you to overcome a traumatic history so you can lead a more fulfilling life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

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

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.