Many of the questions that have come up recently around attachment to your therapist boil down to the very intense issues that arise in the relationship between the therapist and the inner child. In this post, I want to talk about how therapists need to interact with inner children. (Photo: Steven & Courtney Johnson & Horowitz on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.)
You could call inner children very stubborn, but they only act that way because they feel responsible for life or death. That is why they fight so hard for what they know is necessary for a safe and happy solution to their problems. When they become attached to their therapist, it is because they know that the only way to grow is to survive and the only way to survive is to finally get the motherly love they have been waiting for. Now, they have put all their hopes on one person to come through with the required love and nurturing. That’s it. Black and White.
This is why attachment to a therapist carries so much energy and intensity. It is also the reason why this issue is a source of problems.
Problem 1. The kind of love that was missing is probably not a kind that anyone in contemporary life can really give. Think of the love mothers (should) give to their very small children. It is total, 24/7. From a child’s point of view, it has no limits. Even more, if it wasn’t there, then the child imagines what it would have been like. Fulfiling this kind of need is a very tall order, and probably can’t happen.
Problem 2. Such requirements are often quite threatening to therapists. Too many of them become frightened, either consciously or deep down and unconsciously, when they experience the powerful kind of demands that inner children make.
Problem 3. Because the need is so critical, it feels to the child that it must be fulfilled. For this reason, the child will be willing to compromise if necessary, but this willingness to accept something less than full satisfaction rapidly turns out not to be true. What the child had in mind is that once you get a foot in the door, then you can ask for more and the grown-up will eventually be motivated to come through.
Problem 4. If the therapist doesn’t seem to be coming through, the child knows that the reason is not inability, but unwillingness or, at best, lack of motivation. Therefore the answer is to try to find some strategy for motivating the therapist. Therapists don’t usually respond well to efforts to get them to be willing when they already are. They feel that their good will is not recognized and tend to feel hurt in an area that is normally a point of pride.
Here is what we don’t want to happen: For the child to lose her head of steam and give up on the therapist. There is actually a physiology to this. Jaak Panksepp describes what he calls the SEEKING system, that attaches to a goal and, fueled with dopamine, pursues it. If the goal seems too elusive, then the motivational system (See the post “What really Motivates Us“) shuts down and that is called depression. If the child should give up and go into despair, that is very bad for the therapy, because no further effort will go into resolving the unmet need. If sessions continue, they will be fruitless.
But wait. Children, when it comes to life and death, do not have the ability truly to give up and experience the worst of all feelings, despair. Depression is actually a pseudo-despair. It is a shutting down for now, to preserve energy and stay alive in the desperate hope that there might be a next time. I don’t mean that the depression and hopeless feeling aren’t real. They are, but deep down, somewhere hidden under the apparent despair is the hope of finding a solution, perhaps someone else who will really have the willingness to fulfill the unmet needs.
This is a bad outcome for therapy because the inner child has, in fact, given up on this therapist, and is no longer really invested in the relationship. The child is just going through the motions now, and is no longer available for healing.
So in therapy, it is critically important to keep hope alive and on the surface.
This is extremely important for understanding the stories in this blog from patients who have struggled with their therapist. The reason they insist on some particular giving on the part of their therapist is to keep up their hope. Sometimes they must have a hug. At other times it is phone calls outside of sessions. At best, it is simply that the therapist keeps hanging in and is not offended or shaming.
So, what I am saying is that the specific requirement upon which the child insists is not really a requirement as much as a test of the therapist’s willingness. The child’s insistence is so intense because survival itself depends on the therapist’s willingness and that is what is being tested.
How the therapist handles this impasse is the most important issue in this kind of therapy. If the therapist agrees to give whatever is demanded, then the child retains hope, but will soon test again in some slightly different way. Does that mean the therapist shouldn’t do what is asked? Possibly, but sometimes, actually responding to the demands is the only thing that will keep the child from giving up. The real issue is whether the child is ready to understand that the therapist, in saying no, is really showing faith in the healing to come. When the child is not ready, the therapist’s demonstration of flexibility and willingness may be the only thing that will save the therapy from despair. On the other hand, inevitably, it will lead to further tests, because the reason for testing has not been addressed.
The reason for testing is the trauma of the past. The trauma of having a life and death need that is neglected remains frozen in memory and crying out to be fixed.
How do children fix problems? They motivate the grown-up to solve the problem. They know that they lack the power to solve the problem, so they don’t even try. They don’t imagine that they might have the capacity to solve this life-and-death problem. And the way the adult (therapist) can solve the problem is to give the love that was missing in the first place. It’s that simple from the child’s vantage point.
If hope is not lost and the child has not gone underground:
As long as the child remains hopeful, then therapy still has life. But as you can see, the child has one solution in mind. And the child has no idea that there might be any other way to solve the problem. Furthermore, if the therapist dares to suggest that the solution is for the child to change in some way, that has already been tried. The parent, either overtly or by implication, was unwilling to give the needed love, and thereby dumped the problem into the child’s lap. The child was expected, unrealistically, to somehow solve the problem. The feeling of unfairness is part of the remembered trauma, so any kind of refusal on the therapist’s part is likely to be experienced as a repeat of this terrible betrayal.
So the therapist is in the tough position of having sooner or later to disappoint the child, but not wanting to extinguish hope. Not infrequently in these pages this situation is seen by patients as a cruel hoax. Therapists may know they are going to disappoint. Why don’t they just say so, honestly, at the beginning. But if they did, then the child would not have engaged in the therapy at all and a positive outcome would not be possible. Therapists try or should try to explain the risks and benefits to the adult patient, but the child usually does not comprehend and the adult doesn’t see what the fuss is about. Furthermore, if the therapist had insisted at the outset that there would be disappointment, the adult patient would simply have denied having any such unrealistic and shameful wish.
The therapist’s job, then, is to help the patient move from the untrue conviction that the therapist is holding back due to unwillingness, to a realistic understanding that the therapist, willing or not, can only do so much. What that means is that the solution to the problem of missing love is that the shortfall will have to heal rather than be solved by substitution.
In short, the child will have to go through all the feelings of rage and pain and grief that could not be processed when they were first encountered, until they soften and are no longer threatening. Let’s look at emotional healing. It is very painful. No one wants to face those kinds of feelings. Way back then, they were simply beyond the child’s capacity, all the more because, at the time, the parent was not able to provide the kind of support needed for emotional healing to succeed.
What is different now is that the child has access to more adult emotional capacities, and, more important, is finally with someone who (hopefully) knows about emotional healing and how to help another human being go through painful feelings safely and in a way that makes use of the empathic connection. My earlier post, “Emotional Healing: Erase Your Triggers” is about this kind of healing and how it works.
For today, the problem is for the child truly to absorb two facts:
- The therapist isn’t withholding on purpose.
- Emotional healing really is possible.
How can patient and therapist survive these revelations? This is where therapists must show their skill. What tells the child that the therapist is to be believed is genuine authenticity. There is no room here for gimmicks or formulas. There needs to be a demonstration of true willingness to give what can be given and to withstand the child’s rage and demands for what is impossible without anger or retaliation. If the therapist falters, (because this really is not easy), then his or her ability to admit fault and repair the breach is essential.
This work can take a long time and many attempts. The child doesn’t want to give up, and may keep making demands. Or the child may go partially underground and will need to be invited out again. Most of all, what is needed is for the therapist to understand how high are the stakes and how serious is the underlying issue of survival.
The use of adult conversation and explanation is mostly to help the grown-up patient hang in. For the child, words are cheap, and only authentic interaction will provide truly convincing proof that the therapist is really doing his or her best.
As this reality sinks in, the child will become aware that loss and pain cannot be avoided or prevented from having their impact. The child will have to experience powerful emotions. The willingness to face this reality only happens when there is some hope that the therapist really can guide the child to healing. These are the emotions that could not be aired with the real parent. The rage, shame, hurt, sadness and grief will come to the surface. With the child able to see the therapist as a helper and not a refuser, the inevitable course is to go through the pain, lean on the therapist for comfort, and come out the other end to discover the miracle of emotional healing.
What if therapy isn’t going as it should?
Many of the comments on this blog are about situations related to the loss or threat of loss of a cherished therapist. Let’s look at those through the eyes of the inner child. The thought of losing the therapist who is going to be the source of the missing love is unthinkable. Even the possibility generates anxiety because it would represent the impossibility of repairing the gap in love, and therefore the end of life. As you can see, the child still has no idea that healing, as opposed to replacing, might be a possibility.
Many readers have thought of the idea of terminating therapy to solve this situation. But the result would simply be that the child goes underground again and waits for the next potential substitute for mother. Remember that children simply can’t face true despair. The serial seeking of mothers can go on for a lifetime, and often has. That is no solution at all.
What are left are only two answers. The first is to find a new therapist who will stay and will be able to help the child go through the grieving and healing process. The other is for the patient her (or him) self to become the parent as well as the child. If some love has been internalized over the years, then it may be possible essentially to be one’s own parent and help our own inner child realize that the missing love can be healed without ever being replaced.
How do we internalize enough love to be our own parent? I think a lot of this happens in the first year or two of life. It’s called “basic trust.” It is also the bedrock, internally, from which we acquire resilience and the ability to self-soothe. When people engage successfully in meditation, I think they are accessing a calm and safe state of mind derived from this internalization of love. From here, I’m not entirely sure how it works. What I think is that anxiety about love, early in life, is coped with by putting needs “on hold” so that whatever love is available is not be taken in. This “holding breath” can extend far into adulthood. I don’t know whether it simply covers up the internalized sense of safety or prevents such a safety feeling from growing.
I also think that such a sense of a core lovable self (feeling lovable and safe) can be internalized from therapy. I believe this happens in small chunks. It doesn’t happen from the hours of good time together but from going through the sudden pang of loss when we say goodbye (I explain why I think this in my book How We Heal and Grow p. 186). But the goodbye has to be a good one, in which the pang is actually experienced. If it is a goodbye where the child protects him or herself by cutting off the feeling of need (and pain), then nothing is internalized. It can take years of therapy to accumulate enough of these little chunks of lovable self, but it does work. On the other hand, maybe what is happening is only reclaiming or recovering consciousness of something that was there in the first place. I just don’t know which.
Readers have also talked about weaning themselves from therapy. If this seems like an answer, it means that the child has probably held onto the conviction that only replacement is acceptable, not healing. In that case, weaning, or perhaps simply becoming more open to the more limited love that adult life and adult relationships have to offer, could be a way to tell the child that it is time to begin facing the fact that replacement is not really an option. Voluntarily reducing sessions can represent a path to grieving and then acceptance that replacement will not happen and that healing will have to do. It can also be a path leading to greater reliance on outside relationships.
For those who have not had satisfactory therapy, and have trouble finding a safe, lovable self who could fill the role of mom, my suggestion is that you very likely do have such a self inside somewhere. Do you ever experience yourself as lovable? Do you have moments when you love the child in yourself? Do you have a capacity for compassion for others? These are indications that you do have such a self, and could find how to access that calm and safe state of mind. Meditators have spent a lot of time and effort over more than a few years to discover how to do it. This is discussed in the post, “Two Faces of Mindfulness.” When you can find this in yourself, then use it to have compassion for your own inner child and help her (or him) accept the love and begin to acknowledge the pain of not having received it from the one or ones who should have given it in the first place.
Opening those wounds and allowing them to stay open is how we heal. It is like the definition of the blues: “A good person feeling bad.” With some time, healing will come.
I invite your comments and dialog on this very important set of observations. Please note that I have asked commenters on the post “Will I Get Over My Attachment to My Therapist” to continue their dialog here as comments to this post.