Update on Attachment to Therapist

Some new thoughts about the healing part of attachment to your therapist.

It’s been a long time since I posted, but I haven’t forgotten you, my readers. Among many things, I’ve been working with several people who have really struggled with letting go. I have been watching and learning more about how it is possible to move beyond a strong attachment to your therapist. In the past, I have been a little generic about exactly how attachment heals, but I have some new insights to share.

The starting point is that children live in a very different world than adults. In the child’s world, parents can do anything if they really want to. So when there is a big problem, the child’s job is to motivate the parents to do their job. Children don’t even worry about precisely how to solve the problem. Parents will take care of that.

For all humans, making the transition from that world to the adult one where we are responsible for gathering resources and solving our own problems is not easy. That’s why adolescence is hard. In adolescence, you have to let go of the wish to have the parents keep you safe and solve your problems and accept the scary reality of taking responsibility for your own wellbeing. That is huge, and it’s why adolescents would often rather fight with parents instead of taking on responsibility for their own lives. It’s also why the immaturity that we see in adults is often a manifestation of some hidden wish for a “big person” to fix whatever it might be.

When families are loving and supportive (yes, that has been known to happen), then taking on responsibility is still hard, but it is do-able. When it is ceremonialized, we call it a rite of passage. It’s also the basis of my definition of adulthood: “A sense of full ownership of one’s own life.”

Now you can see where I am going. When it was impossible to get the kind and amount of love, personal recognition, support, and sponsorship in reaching one’s potential, things that should be taken for granted, letting go of the childhood worldview is much much harder.

Here’s where the inner child comes in. As you know, I believe that the inner child is the most accurate metaphor for what is going on. In cases of deprivation, the inner child sees that the only way to survive is getting some big person to act right or finding a new one who will. Seeking primal love is the only way to get back on track for growing into full free-standing adulthood. Here in this blog, it is primarily the therapist who comes to represent that one and only source of primal love. In other cases it might be something or someone other than the therapist. Either way, what is at stake is what is experienced as an absolute and fundamental requirement for fulfillment in life.

What’s new is that it has become clear to me that simply letting go of and grieving the lost love is not the answer. That is simply too painful and hard for us humans. I have come to believe that we do better to forget that very dark goal. What is more realistic is making a shift in where we place our hope. The goal is to place hope squarely in the adult world, not in repairing the childhood one. Hope is powerful and can substitute for what we most cherish but can’t access immediately. Children are very stubborn when it comes to survival needs. They know what they need and do not accept substitutes easily. Hope is what they hold onto when all else is gone. As a result, talking an inner child into accepting a different source of hope is not easy, even though the old source is not really viable. From the child’s point of view, an imagined or seemingly possible source of primal love is much safer and more reliable than the patchwork of real, but limited and somewhat conditional love with which adults make do.

A realistic pathway to healing is more like what happens in healthier families. There, we find a gradual and not so easy process of letting go of a childhood fantasy that ultimately can’t be fulfilled and shifting hopes to the good things that adult life can bring when we are open to it. In healthy development, trying to get needs met by parents becomes gradually less satisfactory. We begin to experience disappointment as our needs become more specific and our perception of reality more clear. At the same time, getting needs met outside the family begins to work better and to be more attractive. Ultimately the trade-off is between imaginary fulfillment that is never realized and limited fulfillment that is real and possible. Furthermore, in the adult world, we have much more flexibility to choose where to go for which needs and whom and what to avoid. In this way, we gain freedom and greater satisfaction in exchange for letting go of dependence on the central importance of parents and substitutes.

With dysfunctional parenting, the inner child clings to the hope of at last finding perfect primal love. Where life could not be controlled in childhood, this means finding some new way to manage the environment to make sure needs are met, which, of course, doesn’t work. The less satisfactory the early experience, the harder we cling to the fantasy of being able to find and motivate some big person to take care of all that is needed. There is often an unshakable conviction that such a person exists and must be found. Therapists are perfect candidates, representing themselves as caring and ready to help.

Of course, trying to control one’s environment in this way is not only frustrating and draining, but it uses up energy that should be directed towards engaging with the world at large.

Why is it so hard to let go of the childhood hope and wish? First, let’s realize that the adult world seems far less certain than the one the child imagines. In the adult world you get opportunities, but also lots of challenges and roadblocks. Living life well requires being open to the good things along with readiness to steer around the bad ones. When an inner child is focused on finding and motivating a parent or substitute, becoming open to the good things the uncertain present might bring feels not only risky, but also disloyal. Especially when unhealthy parents demand loyalty, this further teaches the child not to put hope in the outside world. So when the benefits of the real, adult world are weighed against the imagined benefits the inner child has been waiting for, reality seems to come up short.

So what happens in therapy? Ideally, the therapist needs to come as close as possible to giving primal love. But primal love is one-way and unconditional, so how is that possible? The answer is that empathic understanding is actually the core of primal love and it is genuinely possible in therapy. Here I am in sync with “limited re-parenting” in seeing the understanding and empathy, that therapists are normally supposed to provide, as being the closest there is in the adult world to primal love. Add to that a willingness to hang in through thick and thin, and therapists really have quite a bit to give. Sometimes it takes a moment of spontaneity or even some special giving to let the inner child know that this comes from a genuine place, but the mainstays are still understanding, empathy, and willingness to tolerate strong feelings.

This giving of “accurate empathy” is also at the core of what good mothers do. Along with the feeding, changing diapers, etc. that adults don’t really need, they remain reliably tuned in. Empathy is what good mothers have to give when they can’t fulfill a child’s need. “I know you really want that, but it just isn’t possible, and I know it hurts.” And that empathy is what allows the young person to accept the disappointing reality that soon the primary caregiver will not be the one ultimately responsible for taking care of every need.

I have come to believe that this “lubrication” of the therapeutic process with empathy is the catalyst needed to make possible the transition from hope in the fantasy of finding primal love to the reality of piecing together those relationships that create a satisfying adult life. Thus the therapist’s giving does not match the inner child’s perceived need, but does cover, as much as possible, the pain and uncertainty of making the switch. Just like the definition of catalyst in chemistry, the therapist’s empathy can lower the energy required to make this difficult transfer.

Is that enough to allow a switch in where hope is placed? No. There has to be a gradually deeper and more real acceptance that the child is hoping for something that can’t be and that adult reality actually has more to offer. I think the switch can come in big moments and small ones. It comes with moments of realization that what one was looking for is impossible, and at the same time, that there is real hope elsewhere. It’s trading fantasy hope for real hope. A therapist who acts like a good parent will keep giving accurate empathy and understanding, while helping to shine an increasingly clear light on the huge advantages of the adult world with its cornucopia of possibilities compared with the disadvantages of clinging to a childhood wish for primal love unfulfilled in early life and unfulfillable in adult life.

So what happens when the therapist is not up to the job? We have seen in reader comments here how often the delicate process of therapy is disrupted either by the therapist not being able to handle strong feelings or by illness, bureaucracy, or some other inevitable break. In those cases, the equation remains the same, but we hope the client’s belief in the process has not been damaged beyond repair. We hope that the client will be able to attach to some other representative of what is good about the adult world, some other ambassador for the rich land where there are people who actually want to be connected to us, where God or serendipity provides for what we can’t demand or control, and where embracing uncertainty is the way to gain the best things in life.

5 Comments

  • I enjoy your blogs, thank you. I woke up this morning from a powerful dream about my therapist leaving me which was quite – actually hugely – painful, so this little glimmer of hope that healing is possible was well timed. Thanks.

  • This is such an insightful post. I haven’t been on the original blog in quite a while and was delighted to see this new post. I would say that what you have written about reflects exactly what I’m going through right now. My attachment wasn’t tethered. I had a fantasy about an ex therapist! It was hard and traumatic to accept the reality that I was basically living a fantasy. Even knowing that didn’t help. It was a gradual process of pretty much being forced to let go because she wouldn’t see me but also finding support and help outside that relationship that has moved me on. Unfortunately I had turned to an eating disorder to try to get what I wanted from the therapist and because this fulfilled other needs as well I am now dealing with the repercussions of that and trying to recover. I have to put my hope in the adult world to recover from this. My hope has to lie in my ability to find what I need from a range of sources- family, friends, support groups, a sense of purpose, writing, sport, work etc etc. When adult life lets you down as well there is a double problem. This is my current dilemma. I will keep on persevering, believing that the adult world can work for me and I can find some security and my place in it. Thank you Jeffery as always for your wonderful insight.

  • Thank you for this thoughtful article. I’ve been in therapy for thirteen years now with the same therapist (and a few breaks thrown in).

    In that time, I have worked through a lot of stuff. For a long time, I resisted attachment to my therapist. About five years ago, I realized that if I was really going to heal, real attachment was necessary. So, I chose to trust more fully…my therapist helped me reframe this as a trust in myself, that I would survive even if something happened to the therapist. That was helpful for me.

    I see myself as coming to the end of therapy, but have a lot of big changes coming (kids leaving home, finishing a masters degree and changing careers), that I’m not quite ready to lose that weekly connection.

    But I can see myself moving forward without my therapist. That’s new for me. I know that I will always be connected to him and will carry him with me through life with a sense of profound gratitude for what he has given me. I’m deeply appreciative for the safe space he created in therapy that has allowed me to revisit some dark places. In doing so, I’ve been able to let go of the unworthiness that I carried throughout my childhood…and see myself with compassion, worthy of love and good things.

  • Incredibly helpful! This article describes my life far better than I have ever been able to describe or even understand it. There are times attachment seems like it is too strong, almost unbearable. It is nice to be able to see it as part of the process that is the solution. Thank you for this perspective!!

  • Thank you for sharing your new insights.
    I am not fully convinced -or maybe I did not get it right yet.

    From my own experience, having stopped yet another “therapeutic alliance” with someone I worked with for about 9 months, the former hypothesis was more useful: experiment the attachment, and grieve the love you did not get. It is painful and confusing work, but it is doable as long as the therapist (and at least some people in one’s life) are honest, sensitive, kind.

    The pain and confusion is much diminished if one focuses on the somatic processes. The work for me is to learn to pay attention to my own bodily sensations and feelings.

    I believe this is what re-parenting is ultimately about. Because good enough parents help their child feel her own body and feelings and self-regulate, which can happen when the child feels safe and secure and loved enough.

    So the process is to learn that I am safe enough to tune into my own feelings, and actually, feeling safe enough to do so is not a huge challenge, it’s just a new habit to get.

    Then we need to visit these sensations and feelings, but as long as their is no focus on emotions or identification (where the pain is the most acute), it is very much bearable.

    Then the body does it job, unlocking all the tensions and stresses and habitual survival mechanisms.

    It is a tricky job, because this refined tuning in has not been learned and doing it is like learning to love oneself (it IS loving oneself): a big affair. But it is straightforward and not so painful at all.

    A therapist can help tremendously in many ways.

    I will still try another guy soon. He does EMDR, which should help us both help me tune in (the former one was not doing that, he was lovely but only concerned about ideas and presentations). Now I hope his personality will match my cravings 😀

    Thank you.

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