TIFT #41. “It’s the Love” II–Bracing

Thanks so much to the readers who commented on “It’s the Love,” Post #36. How often does a therapist get to participate in a genuine dialog with clients outside of a therapeutic relationship? I hope many therapists are taking the time to read the 25 comments on that post. They are incredibly valuable and instructive for all of us.

In October, 2019, I tried to write the definitive post about resolving the intense attachments and underlying pain that survivors of trauma and neglect most dread. I got right it that grieving the shortfall was not the answer, but a commenter on the recent post said it much better:  “Telling someone to grieve a lack of love seems similar to telling them they should simply grieve not having enough oxygen or water.” Beyond that, I proposed therapist empathy as the answer. Now I can see there is much more to it. This post should be considered a further step.

Bracing against some dreaded experience

Susan commented, “The trust sometimes starts to build but it feels quite fragile and unstable like a house of cards one minor slip up or mistaken comment cause it to come tumbling down.” What is left when trust crumbles is return to a state of being braced against hurt. That means being in a constant state of preparation, aimed at fending off the thud of disappointment. This pattern of defense comes from long ago. How do children prepare themselves? Often it is in the body. It might be a bent over posture. It might be self-criticism so as to be braced against surprise. It might be bodily tension against physical assault or violation. It might be an idea. One client braced herself against loss of control of her own anger by telling herself she was the cause of her mother’s psychosis. Another did the same by holding the idea that he was a “bad person.” Bracing keeps the client safe from pain, surprise, and loss of control, but it also blocks therapeutic progress.

Why is bracing important?

Bracing is critically important because it is what stands in the way of healing. The foundational change mechanisms, Extinction and Memory Reconsolidation have the same two requirements. 1) Activation of the emotional trigger for the maladaptive response pattern, and 2) exposure to surprising new information with which to update the old pattern. The first requirement is the one blocked by bracing. Without an openness to experiencing the dreaded emotion, healing can’t take place. It’s that simple.

Clearing up some confusion

In thinking about this post, I realized that I had been put off the trail in reading about Memory Reconsolidation. The research is built on the “learned fear paradigm,” in which mammals (human and others) are trained to be afraid, then untrained by re-experiencing the feared experience in a context of safety. The subtle difference is that it is not the fear that is erased, it is the dread of an emotional experience. Fear is not what is dreaded; fear is the “signal anxiety” that tells the mind to watch out. More basic to healing is activation of the experience that is dreaded. When clients are able to let go of bracing, it is because their fear is already diminished. It is when they experience a sense of safety and openness, a sense that nothing too bad will happen.

The core, dreaded emotional experiences

If I said the thing client’s dread is “the unknown,” that would be awfully abstract, but it is not that far off. The mammalian brain evolved to prioritize figuring out whether it is better to attack or to run, and that depends on “sizing up” the opponent or the challenge. Getting it wrong means death. The situation is even worse for children. They may not be able to know whether they have the resources (i.e. support from big people) to meet a challenge. For them, especially if caregivers are not seen as reliable, the answer is unknown. The calculation comes back, “I don’t know if I will survive this.” Naturally, they prepare for the worst by bracing. It happens in an instant and is anything but abstract.

Bracing consists of maintaining an instinctive, self-protective stance. Words for the dreaded experience might be “helplessness,” “hopelessness,” or “not knowing,” but they are all equivalent to facing death. The opposite, “survival” is also an abstraction, but the brain treats it as a very concrete imperative and will do anything in its power to gain advantage. For children, that means being loved so much that the big people will look beyond their own needs and provide safety.

The opposite of bracing is trust and safety

Once again trust and safety are abstractions. The brain has a more direct way of expressing these. When humans (and other mammals) feel a full sense of safety, we see it instantly. Think of kids on vacation with their loving parents. They skip with joy and excitement. They feel no constraints. They speak freely and act with exuberance. That’s the feeling clients are seeking when they test our trustworthiness. And when they find that kind of openness, they will be on the way to the readiness and confidence they need to unbrace and be ready to experience their dreaded emotions in the safety of a trusted relationship.

Clients who have experienced deprivation or trauma

The people who commented on the “It’s the Love” post are, like many others, people who live their lives bracing against hurt or abandonment. Their inner child attaches fiercely to their therapist in the understandable (and hopefully realistic) belief that this person may save them. In order to let go of their bracing, they need to establish a robust trust. This leads them on a quest for indicators of trustworthiness.

For each client, as for those who commented on the blog post, what is reassuring may be quite unique. For one person, it might be a willingness to use touch or give a hug. For another, it was knowing that the therapist would put aside the need for sleep and respond to a call during the night. Often these amount to “proofs” that the therapist is willing to put aside their own concerns and notice the needs of the client. We can imagine that these are often opposites of the critical failings of an inadequate or abusive parent.

When the therapist finally understands and comes through, only then, can the bracing be released. Only then, can the client let go, be vulnerable, trust, and allow the proximity of danger, knowing that they are not facing it alone. That is why clients fight so hard to get therapists to show themselves worthy of trust.

Effects of therapist boundaries

Imagine, now that the therapist holds back, believing that rules must never be bent or boundaries softened. The effect may be just like the parent who had more pressing things to do. “You are not important enough for me to put aside my personal concerns.” It’s even worse when the therapist has some (BS sounding) explanation for why their withholding is the right thing to do. That’s like a parent who openly justifies his or her failure. What self-respecting client would not brace even harder under those circumstances.

And what about the therapist who makes promises but does not keep them? That feels like being led on, then betrayed. It leaves the client concluding that the therapist must be using the client’s dependence for personal gratification, while disregarding the real need for trust.

Doubt

Even concrete proof of trustworthiness may still leave room for doubt. “Will she care next time?” “Are my demands leading to built up resentment and an eventual rejection?” “Can it possibly last?” These doubts are real, given that, in the eyes of the inner child, the stakes are life and death. What ensues may be a prolonged give and take over proof of trustworthiness. If the dance of doubt and proof is ever going to end, there needs to be a moment when the client, in effect, says, “What the hell! I’m going to go for it and trust.” 

One thing that may make that possible is the therapist showing some human limits. Imagine the therapist who does show some irritation at being tested over and over. What if the display of irritation gets discussed without defensiveness and both participants come to accept that the therapist is human and has limits. This conversation introduces the idea that the therapist does not have to be infinitely trustworthy, only enough to be willing to be there to help the client face their worst dread.

What the testing adds up to

The negotiation over trustworthiness can take many forms, but what the back and forth amounts to is a chance for the inner child to grow in maturity. One example of a more structured approach to this negotiation is the “limited reparenting” that can be part of Schema Therapy. The child has a chance to move from a young quest for absolute trustworthiness to a more adult view that even the best people have limits. This acceptance is what can make possible the letting go or unbracing, that ultimately makes it possible to re-activate the archaic dread in a context of safety, thus fulfilling the required conditions for Memory Reconsolidation.

Trauma bonds

One commenter on the blog post describes exploitation by a narcissistic and unscrupulous therapist. Why did she trust him? This discussion gives the answer. When children are in a dire situation, archaic survival instincts take over. They may trust whoever is there, even a perpetrator. When there is no other choice, the need for adult support is imperative and humans will naturally trust (and bond with) the available other.

I believe this is the origin of trauma bonds. Following such an experience in childhood, untrustworthy people are no longer screened out. To the contrary, they are instinctively identified as trustworthy, up to a point. However in the unfolding of that relationship, our commenter did not fully “let go.” Against reason, she kept hoping that the therapist would prove worthy, but he didn’t, and she never fully let go of her bracing. As a result, therapy with a self-serving therapist was not of benefit.

Are there times when touch is the only way?

So far in this post, I have held to the idea that the only reason for going beyond traditional boundaries is to prove trustworthiness in the form of willingness to go above and beyond. Are there times when touch is required for therapy to work? I think the answer is that bracing exists at different levels of development. When the bracing is physical, it may be that that is the only language that can be taken in. Sometimes words can reach in and be received in a way that can release physical bracing, but I’m not sure this is universally the case. Somatic Experiencing Therapy, for example, can include non-erotic touch in such a way that communication is established on a nonverbal level. One situation where an open mind may be especially warranted is when the bracing is in the form of somatic symptoms of involuntary muscle tension, psychogenic pain, and regulation of internal organs such as the gut.

And what about the eroticized transference? As with trauma bonds, the experience of trust, a subjective feeling of safety and predictability, may first have been established in the midst of sexual abuse. In such cases, it is understandable that the inner child will seek out the same illusory kind of safety with the therapist. This is a place in therapy where touch is likely not to be safe and where therapists need to be open to recognizing their own possible vulnerability. Real discussion in a context of safety can, under the best conditions, lead to the client being able to accept boundaries and find genuine trust. On the other hand, it might, as in the case of the blog commenter, not be resolvable, except by ending that therapy.

Conclusion

Recognizing and exploring the many forms of bracing can be the beginning of a process in which the inner child grows and matures. Gradual acceptance transforms childlike views of what was needed to more adult ones. The endpoint of this change process is readiness to experience the dual awareness of traumatic pain in a context of adult safety, allowing Memory Reconsolidation to heal the old dread. Remarkably, in coming to the needed sense of safety and trust, what was originally missing, loving support for growth, is ultimately fulfilled.

Jeffery Smith MD

Photo by Lauren Lulu Taylor, Unsplash

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32 Comments

  • Hi Jeffery,
    Thank you for this follow up post. I like the term ‘bracing’ that you have used. My therapist and I speak about this about this alot and often use the expression ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop”. She says I seem to always be waiting for that other shoe and that it is understandable given my history. I am not sure her thought process on how she thinks I eventually get to the point where I stop waiting so I could very much be wrong on my interpretation of how she thinks this gets resolved but it feels sometimes like she thinks it’s as simple as if she continues to show up and accept me and build trust that eventually I can talk my way out of it will somehow just change, begin to integrate and I will stop listening for that other shoe. I don’t feel it is that simple however so reading your understanding has been helpful.

    I found it very interesting when you said…
    ‘Are there times when touch is required for therapy to work? I think the answer is that bracing exists at different levels of development. When the bracing is physical, it may be that that is the only language that can be taken in’

    I recently had a bit rupture with my T and right at the start of my last session right before a month long break. Inwardly I felt myself close off to her and would now say I was in fully bracing mode (I am not sure how I appeared outwardly to her) but it did seem like she softened and adjusted her approach and said many positive and nice things (Perhaps to help me regulate and connect with her and not leave the session ending badly). This lasted about 20 minutes and I desperately tried to open up to her as I wanted to stay connected and I didn’t want to leave for the break feeling this disconnected… but it was just impossible. I could hear her words and respond and converse as if all was okay. She said many nice reassuring things (although I can’t remember what now) but I could not take any of it them. At one point I do remember feeling that the only thing that would have helped in that moment is if she came and sat beside me, or put her hand on mine or even offered a hug these are things that would never happen. I do wonder what this means for me and my therapy. I have always had a feeling that touch is important for my healing but here it felt like a knowing.
    Something that validated this further and is a concrete examples is when I was at a party with my husband where I felt really anxious. He put his hand on mine just as a way of showing affection. Afterwards he noted that when he did he noticed that my body immediately relaxed. It was a profound moment for me and highlighted the impact of simple touch.

    Anyway sorry for the long post I just find the relationship between love and healing in the context of therapy so very interesting.

    • Thanks, Susan. Your experience is right in line with the post. I think we are both focused on how to get to “What the hell, I’m ready to go for it!” I think waiting may be a kind of habit that one has to break out of, but it is also scary to do that. Sometimes kids need a push. It’s like standing on a diving board and hesitating. What is it that helps one take the plunge? Positive support is part of it, but I think it often takes something else, something to give urgency or a willingness to recognize that the risk is not life-and-death. I welcome more reader comments on this question. JS

      • I think it’s important to remember patience is really important when it comes to trust in complex trauma survivors. It might be tempting for therapists to try to “push” or even just “nudge” clients to trust them, but in my experience, that can backfire. What Jeffrey calls “bracing” in this post, I think of as my “protector parts.” One thing I got out of Internal Family Systems (a previous form of therapy I tried therapy that did not entirely work for me but gave me some useful language/concepts) is the idea that it’s important not to push protectors too much; doing so will cause a backlash if they are not ready and don’t truly feel safe. These are often NOT child parts, but rather parts that protect a person’s internal system, especially the child or wounded parts of the system.
        The key thing is that the protector parts need to take as long as they need to trust the therapist. My current therapist is very respectful of my protector parts. She frequently asks how they feel, what they need from her to feel “ok enough,” what they think of things she’s said or done. When I feel mistrustful of her or even need to test her, she does not hold that against me. She communicates with my protector parts but never pushes them to let their guard down. I think it’s important for therapists to remember that “bracing” (or defenses, or protector parts, or whatever language makes the most sense) are there for good reason, and will only be relinquished slowly and carefully–on the client’s timeline, not the timeline of the therapist.

        • This is a really important discussion! Lest therapists be discouraged, just think how tricky these same issues and decisions are for parents wanting to support growth. Thanks to all commenters. JS

      • Hi Jeffery, thanks for your response. I definitely do want to get out of this ‘stuckness; and take the plunge. My problem is that I struggle with these abstract concepts that are so often used in therapy and real life of just….Letting go…leaning into….sitting with…taking the plunge..All wonderful things that should be done and I want to do but just not sure how…..I need a step by step manual lol….Are you referring it in relation to trust? Yes would be interested to hear more comments on this

      • Looking back, as a client, I took “trust plunges” in the context of experiencing my therapist’s authenticity and feeling her love, and resisted the process, became like a needy child, when it felt like she was by the book, like she was playing a game. It felt dishonest. (That feels hard to say).

        (FYI: my therapist died, suddenly after 10 years of work, and as heartbreaking as it was (it was!), I subsequently came to trust myself more than ever before (yoga, meditation, Marshall Rosenberg ‘s work, you).

        I have a question for you and your readers. I provide psycho education on attachment and do meta work- explaining the importance of our relationship in healing and the importance of communicating what’s happening in session (in body-breath, bracing) and mind- (the misattunements) to then re-attune (corrective emotional exp or memory reconsolidation). What do you think of explaining the process?

        Is it better to simply do and not tell? (I’m thinking it feels more authentic to me to tell and that may be my answer).

        PS. I supervise two therapist groups. I share your work.

        PPS. Enjoy your time off. Happy holidays.

        • I tend to give explanations. Words have some anchoring function, but don’t change much. Some people lead with their intellect; Others much less. JS

        • Hi Jane, I think both doing and telling can be helpful (for me, these are helpful to different parts of myself). I’m not sure if you have particular modalities you practice, but in AEDP which I find helpful there’s a lot of focus on metaprocessing and transparency, and I find that positive. You are absolutely right that therapists who seem to be “playing a game” can create a lot of negative feelings in clients. Tbat’s my experience as a client too.

  • This is an interesting post, Jeffery. One thing I wanted to add/clarify (and this is implied in your post, especially at the end) is that attempts to get flexibility (whether in terms of touch, expressions of love, or whatever) from the therapist are not exclusively tests of trustworthiness. They can be tests of trustworthiness, as you describe in the post, but sometimes they are simply things a client needs in order to fill some gap or heal a particular trauma. So, for me, as I mentioned in previous posts, (non-sexual) touch is really important. The reason it is important is not just because I’m testing my therapist’s willingness to come through for me (though that is probably part of it); it is also because it fills a real need that I have. It functions as what some modalities refer to as a “corrective emotional experience:” I think Susan’s experience seems to speak to a similar need.

    • I would agree with this. It’s not simply a matter of testing their trustworthiness or seeing if they will respond to an ask or wish but an actual deep knowing that it is something that is needed for healing a deep wound. I am someone who actually would have never thought this was even a need. Throughout my life I am someone who has been adverse to touch such as hugs from others except from my partner. My friends would often joke how awkward I was when it came to hugs and how I disliked them but would tolerate them so this is surprising to me.

      • Susan, very well said. It reminds me of the concept of “state dependent learning.” If we tried to communicate with a one-year-old in language, there is no way that would communicate. Tone of voice and holding could. Not just the, but it needs to be at the right time, too. Thank all of you for sharing your thoughts and your individual experiences.

        • This might be side tracking your post a bit so apologies as I know you mainly write these ones for therapists but I am a therapist in training so straddling both but here as a client. One thing I would add to this piece is the shame that the desire for safe touch brings up. Especially as someone who never ‘needed’ nor wanted touch from others and the it is the last thing they would ever want to share or ask for. There is huge shame around wanting it, asking for it and then not being given it. The message for those who don’t use it seems to be that a therapist being accepting and allowing the client to talk about it in a safe space without judgment etc will help this but IMO it doesn’t and can’t. I respect the need for a therapists to have their own boundaries and for some it is just not part of their process so I am not sure where the answer lies when that need is activated in a client. But I just don’t see how the shame can ever really dissipate when it is a basic human need and they are being told it cannot be fulfilled on any level. To use the water analogy another post used before it is like someone in the dessert without water and dying of thirst and the therapist coming along and offering them food and a chat instead. It’s almost impossible to move past that need for water and then becomes something you can’t help but focus on as at times it feels like without it you might just die. Some would argue that it needs to be gotten from your own personal relationships outside of therapy but this is simply not the same thing. To me it’s equivalent to needing/wanting a hug from your mother but your mom says no or is not available and instead having to do with one from your aunt. The same system isn’t activated.

          • Susan, Please don’t worry about mixing client and therapist points of view. And anyway the therapists seem to be the ones who are reluctant to comment! It is becoming apparent that, just like every parent/child pair is different, so are Thrapist/client pairs. Needs vary and the pathway to trust can vary also. It does seem that building trust is one thing that needs to happen and then another that the kind of soothing people need is quite specific and not the same for everyone. Water and oxygen are really good things to have! JS

    • Real question for you Petlover. What if your therapist was willing to meet your inner child in thoughtful ways but refused any sort of touch? Would that be a deal breaker for you in terms of therapy with her? I’m struggling with a therapist who takes after sessions calls, extra sessions when needed and very affirming words in session. I have no desire to be touched in any way so that’s not what’s in question. The care while plentiful doesn’t feel especially authentic to our therapy because therapist offers the same calls, extra sessions to all. No one patient is treated differently in terms of therapist boundaries. 8 years with this therapist and recently I asked for something which as a long time client thought was no big deal but all hell broke loose for me when therapist absolutely refused. When therapist points out all they do provide and why aren’t I satisfied with that, it sends me into a spiral. The reason I’m sharing all this is you’re the first person I’ve read about who has a therapist who seems to want to meet you where you are so I wonder about your past experiences. Did you ever feel gaslit ? Where you in your heart knew you were right but you had someone in an authority position suggesting you might be wrong? Even after all these years with my therapist who I love deeply I’m thinking there might be different options that are less traumatic. You opened my eyes to that. Thank you.

      • Hi Wondering, that is a really good question. I think if my therapist refused something I really needed without any discussion or flexibility (whether touch or something else) that would make me question our relationship. What strikes me about your comment is that “The care while plentiful doesn’t feel especially authentic to our therapy.” My therapist, to my knowledge, does offer many of the things she does with me to other clients as well (at least some of them). Sometimes that makes me feel a bit jealous, but at the same time, her relationship with me feels very authentic. Partly that’s because she has always been willing to be flexible and meet me where I’m at. Sometimes that means doing things differently with me than other people. The fact that your relationship feels inauthentic strikes me as a bit of a red flag. Also, the fact that your therapist “points out all they do provide” is also a bad sign to me. I did indeed have a different therapist who did the same thing in the past and it was harmful. It can feel like the therapist is demanding your gratitude. And yes, it did feel like gaslighting. I’m sorry you’re in such a painful situation (I know it too well), but I think your instincts are right.

        • Petlover, thank you for your response. I keep thinking about one of your earlier comments on a different post where you said, “eventually came to a point where I didn’t think therapy had anything else to offer me, and that the risks of it far outweighed the benefits. I decided I would just have to live with the continued pain and make the best of it.“ That really resonates with me. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • Maybe patients, depending on their personalities and inner child difficulties, need a different approach to progress in therapy?
    One therapist I had was comfortable to be with, but, with hindsight, I can see that I needed a stick, as well as a carrot.
    This last therapist has done so much more for me. I left school at the end of High School, and lacked confidence in my ability to achieve. I wanted to undertake some tertiary study, but was “stuck” between wanting to achieve and fearing it would be beyond me. I asked her to be honest – did she think I could do the course? She replied, “I don’t doubt it for a minute – but you need to question your misplaced lack of confidence. We both know from previous experience that you’ll find an excuse and not do it. I think you need a bit of a push from me. Next therapy session I want to know what steps you’ve taken to achieve your goal. We’re here to work – therapy IS work.”
    I knew she was right – therapy is expensive and I’d progressed to a stage where I needed a push from another person to push me into pushing myself. (If that makes sense?)

    I’m so glad she pushed me – my life is so much more interesting nowadays.

    (Obviously I do think a therapist has to work with a patient for some time to establish a good working relationship before they use a bit of a stick approach).

    Years ago I did group therapy, and was struck how some patients seemed stuck in playing “poor me”. Others tried new behaviours and furthered their interests/friendships and seemed to make better progress.

  • This is such an interesting post.I’ve commented here before about my long term therapy and how confusing it all is. I know he truly cares about my well-being and does the best he can to understand my complex trauma. I’m deeply deeply attached to him and yet I know from all of your informative posts and the awesome comments here that he is never going to be flexible enough to meet what I believe are my needs. It’s such a terrible dilemma for me. I don’t want to start over with someone else but I am in constant turmoil and feel like “bracing” is the perfect term for what I’m experiencing.

  • I’d like to add to this interesting conversation about the subject of touching, hugging, etc

    When I was in my twenties I was very ill and hospitalised with major depression. At one stage I had what was termed “severe depersonalisation”, which was frightening as I remember seeing my face in a mirror, but not “feeling” that it was my face -although intellectually I knew it was….
    One day a doctor came into my room and squeezed my foot at the end of the bed, and said, “hello”.
    The point being that her touch on my foot somehow brought my feeling back – it’s many years later and I still remember it.

    Conversely, my present therapist who has helped me so much to have a better life, doesn’t think hugging is appropriate. Initially, I found this difficult, because my mother had been a great hugger. It took me a long time to trust this therapist, but since she’s helped me in other areas of my life I just think now that she, like me, has a right to have boundaries.

    • I’m thinking about a new angle on this question. The issue of trust can’t really be resolved because the inner child is looking for 100% trustworthiness, which no therapist can offer. So maybe the way to handle bracing is more to work on peeking behind the curtain to try to understand what is so dreaded. I’m thinking about going further than some abstraction like “abandonment,” but trying to get inside the child’s mind that was there when the dread was first established. What did it feel like? By building a tiny pathway into the dread, it begins to seem less dire. For small children, everything is huge compared to the way it looks through adult eyes. As long as the dread is kept behind a wall or curtain, then it keeps it’s huge scale of life-and-death. So the take away is to work at developing a more accurate view of what the dread looks like through young eyes. JS

      PS: It has come to my attention that the above might be misunderstood as supporting some unhelpful things in therapy.

      1. Am I supporting an “analytical” approach over a feeling one? No. When I use the phrase an “accurate view of what the dread looks like through young eyes,” I don’t mean intellectual and I don’t mean changing the subject or exploration pushed by the therapist when the client is not ready. I mean working together to gain an empathic sense of what the dreaded experience would be like. That kind of exploration should be an important part of any therapy for trauma.

      2. Do I mean stifling discussion of concerns about trustworthiness or problems in the relationship? No. I am talking about a situation where the trustworthiness of the therapist is clear to the (adult) client, but where feelings of worry in spite of positive experience might become an obsession. It is true that in complex PTSD, therapists can hold a lot of power, and need to be aware that they can create a “force field” that feels and is coercive. I do not mean to support even subtle coerciveness, but to support open recognition of client’s feelings and concerns.

      3. How can you tell if “feelings of worry in spite of positive experience” are really valid indicators of an untrustworthy therapist? The best way to deal with this is to talk openly about it, even if that is hard to do. If there are still doubts, a consultation with a trusted professional is also a good idea.

      The therapeutic relationship is a dynamic partnership that requires mutual sensitivity and openness. I don’t think therapists who need to hide behind a professional facade work well with clients with complex PTSD. Even when there is a level of trust, relationship issues will come up that need to be worked through openly on both sides. I hope this clarifies any misunderstanding about my comment.

      • Thanks for clarifying because I was confused about your comment which felt contradictory to what you wrote in your blog post. Regarding #2 in your addendum, can you please explain what you mean by therapists “ can create a “force field” that feels and is coercive.” Thank you.

        • I know from experience that my thinking or wishes can get fixated and even when I think I am open to other ideas, it can feel powerfully pushy to my client. That’s partly because I do have a strong personality and partly because my client is very sensitive to disagreement and doesn’t want to have conflict. Fortunately she lets me know and I am ultimately able to acknowledge that I was focused on my idea and not following hers.

  • It’s very interesting about the issue of touch of holding. I have never had a therapist who fulfilled that desire, which was super intense. Now I don’t really have the desire anymore, but I also note that I no longer feel close to anyone, and I am, like Susan wrote, awkward with receiving emotional physical contact. This has happened after therapy that brought out my deepest pain, with nothing given. I wrote once about how I got really, really ill when that happened. I am not so ill now, and physical therapy has helped heal some of the physical symptoms resulting from my childhood. But I don’t relate emotionally to anyone really now, I no longer even feel close to my husband. It’s OK, I function, but my emotional flatness and the lack of emotional closeness is painful. The physical therapist had really good boundaries, and she helped me a lot, but she just left, and I literally felt no attachment to her. I expected her to leave some day, and she did. I don’t know how to feel close to someone anymore.

    • I’m sorry to read this Sylvia Beth. It must feel terrible to not feel close to anyone. Did your emotional flatness and feelings of not being close to anyone start after your therapist would not hug/ touch? Maybe you could look for a somatic therapist who practices differently than your last so that you can see if touch in therapy makes a difference in what you’re (not) feeling. Take care.

      • I am working with one person who is also seeing a Somatic Experiencing Therapist, who has extensive experience in using touch. It seems to be exactly what is needed in this case, where somatic symptoms predominate. I plan to learn more about this. JS

      • Hi Wondering,

        My therapist would not hug me or let me sit beside him with my head on his shoulder. I weathered that. But when I told him of my deepest pain, his comment was “You want me to nurture you.” I could not handle that and became really ill. In the hospital, (where I was for over 2 months), I felt attached to the doctor. When I told them this, they increased the dose of medication. I felt I had CNS depression from that. In the hospital, they also told me they thought I had Adperger’s, so I just tell myself it’s because of that.

        • Thanks for your comment. Based on what you say, it sounds like you heard the therapist’s “You want me to nurture you” as both a “No!” and a cause for shame. Wanting to be nurtured is very natural for an inner child wishing to repair what was never set right. Over the months and years, we have seen a lot of discussion around these issues. 1) Each person is unique and there is not one general rule. 2) Quite often the therapist’s willingness and flexibility is critical to establishing a sense of safety. 3) Client’s wishes, if fulfilled, sometimes build trust, but in other cases, can lead to an escalating and unsatisfiable feeling of need. 4) A good therapist should be ready to talk about this openly and without labeling or resorting to rigid rules. And please be sure to read the next post about “The Dread.”

  • I realize like what Jeffery said that each client is unique and what works or even is good for one may be not what is good/safe or needed for another. Therapists obviously also need boundaries and have their own comfort levels need to be respected. There are also many potential dangers associated with it so I am not sure what the answer is.

    In saying that there is however a clear pattern of many clients (from both this blog and other sites who consistently struggle with the lack of safe touch (I am referring to smaller more every day types of things like a hug upon arrival/leaving, or touch of a hand when upset).

    I have often believed that it impedes my progress and that would actually be something that would help me to get to where I am going faster (where ever that is). Interestingly enough pre Covid I went to a Reiki practitioner once a week for 6 weeks and the only touch was a brief goodbye hug at the end. I didn’t realize it until after that it had a profound effect on me and I was able to hold them in mind amongst other things far easier than my therapist who I have been seeing for many years.

    I do have to wonder if this lack of touch is not just slowing progress for some clients but actually causing damage and re-traumatizing those younger parts.

  • Sylvia Beth, When I read your comments about flatness and a lack of emotional closeness being painful, it caused me to wonder why so any of us get “stuck” in so many situations that cause us so much pain and suffering? What is behind this fear that keeps us right where we are? What is really behind our fear to attempt change? Perhaps this is something you could explore?

    This brings me to jeffery’s comment, and as someone diagnosed with complex PTSD, that honing in on what a young child felt at the time is very important. Children see the world through different eyes to adults. (eg. A drunk boyfriend isn’t nearly as frightening as a drunk parent to a small child.)
    My feelings as a small child were feeling helpless, feeling overwhelmed, feeling a lot of fear, feeling not competent to handle an adult situation, when my parents couldn’t cope on occasions. Being the eldest of five siblings meant I also – with all this fear and helplessness going on -felt responsible for the care of my younger siblings.
    And here’s the point I wish to stress. Even with years of therapy, when triggered, I still often feel helpless, overwhelmed and not confident to handle a situation.

    Jeffery, you’re so right, those problematic childhood feelings are exactly where the therapist and patient need to do the work. Also, many folks with complex PTSD were emotionally neglected as children (in my case, not deliberately, my parents both had significant issues of their own to deal with) – so working with a responsible adult, the therapist, accomplishes two things. Firstly, you become aware of why some feelings you have trigger what you said about maladjusted emotional responses. Secondly, you are then in a position to, as an adult, realize these emotional triggers, and find a more adult way to handle them. The bottom line being that we’re now adults, and as such, more competent, more in control than we were as children.

    By the way, I’m glad my therapist gave me a push to achieve -she could see what I was capable of as an adult, whilst I was still stuck in feeling like I was this small child who couldn’t achieve anything. I needed that push!

    • Hi inner child,

      It’s a good question why people persist in suffering patterns. It seems like it lasts until you become grounded and find yourself where you are, and face the feelings. Why that can take years or even decades is not something I know. In the end, it seems to be a question for God.

      I liked the technique you described in an earlier post, of saying “Trigger” to yourself when the flood of chemicals comes. I am borrowing it. I try to create a sentence that names what is triggering me, and I repeat the sentence over and over to myself to desensitize myself to the trigger. Sometimes it’s really hard to name the trigger.

    • Hi inner child,

      It’s a good question of why people get stuck in suffering patterns. It seems to last until you become grounded and find yourself where you are. Why this can last for years or even decades is something I do not know. It seems like it is a question for God.

      I liked the technique you described in an earlier post, where you say “trigger” to yourself when the flood of chemicals comes. I am borrowing it. I try to come up with a sentence that names the trigger. I repeat the sentence over and over to myself a few times to desensitize myself to the trigger (which sometimes feels intolerable). Sometimes it is hard to name the trigger.

  • Hi Sylvia Beth, – “why people get stuck in suffering patterns”?

    Here’s my take – suffering, although difficult, is familiar. We might be suffering, but we know what this is. What if change is worse? A case of “better the devil you know”?

    It seems to get back to fear of attempting change.

    In my particular case, it had to get to the stage when I couldn’t maintain the suffering – my defense mechanism failed, and I had what is termed “a nervous breakdown”.
    With hindsight, I now see that breakdown as beneficial – as it led to therapy and emotional growth.

    I’ll never forget what the psychiatrist in hospital at the time of my breakdown said to me, “You’ve no other choice now, your defenses have failed, so we have to go into those areas of your life of trauma that you’ve been avoiding. …..I came to see that depression is a substitute for real suffering.

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