Working With the Inner Child

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:

  1. The therapist isn’t withholding on purpose.
  2. 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.

Jeffery Smith

PS:  As of 7/15/17, I’m closing comments here so the discussion can continue on my new post, “Emotions: Avoid Them or Heal.” I think the new one moves us in an important direction.


  • Thank you so much for the continued articles on this topic. I have never felt such intense emotions. I have gone through a lot of the steps that you talk about here. I still see my therapist three times a week. We have discussed the attachment issue at some length a long with other issues. My question is this. I told my therapist one time that even if I wanted to I couldn’t walk away from therapy. I’m too attached to her. Her reply was that it concerned her because therapy should be a choice and she pretty much didn’t want me to feel held hostage. At that point in my therapy, I was feeling some anger towards her I didn’t realize. Now, I’m trying to work through this. You talk about realizing healing as an option instead of weaning off therapy. Right now I’m trying to see her three times a week and then two times a week back and forth hoping to be able to dial back that need. My question is does therapy need to be dialed back or will I dial it back myself when more healing takes place. I’ve come a long way but feel I still have a long way to go. Sometimes, it’s hard not to get discouraged. Anything you can offer would be greatly appreciated

    • I wanted to add that the anger is no longer there. Upon talking with her and working through some of these feelings the anger has totally disappeared. But, I’m still very much attached to her. I think about her constantly outside of appointments. She has been great in helping me through this. I’m just trying to figure out if I need to dial it back or if healing should do that on it’s own

      • Dear Hopelessly Attached,

        Based on your question, I clarified the paragraph on weaning a bit in the post. What goes on is a dialog with the inner child. If the child seems bent on denying the need to heal and holding onto the therapist forever as a substitute mother, then it may be helpful to give the child a nudge either by reaching more to outside people or cutting back sessions. On the other hand, if the child is naturally realizing that therapy, like childhood, ultimately leads toward having your own outside life, then pushing the issue may not be needed. Of course what we don’t want is to be draconian in cutting sessions and send the child back underground to wait for another chance to find a substitute mother.

  • I can relate to the wanting of more sessions but I never really know why? What exactly am I looking for in an extra session? I feel the weeks of vacation on either part really difficult and I’m counting the days. St the same time I feel shame do feeling so needy. My therapist takes his boundaries very seriously and doesn’t answer any emails or texts and has no communication outside sessions. I find that harsh and sometimes take it as a rejection. Any tips on how to handle that?

  • Dear Jeffery your continued post on this is so helpful. I am deeply attached to my therapist and my inner 3 year old is constantly wanting more, crying, raging, demanding her love and knowing she is willing but pushing her all the time. Then the child goes underground like this long weekend because I can’t see her and I read into an email response a kind of dismissal. My adult self knows full well she is willing, available but the child wanted her to say more, to say that she will love me and miss me over the long weekend and of course she can’t do that. So my child retaliates by saying well then I don’t need you, I will shut down until our next session. And at our next meeting I only have 50 mins to tell her all the things I want her to know about how I ache for her 24/7, the time goes too fast and the pain starts all over again and so we go on. Your expertise in the expectation that emotional healing will happen in time is encouraging but it’s still incredibly difficult and painful to even imagine a time when I won’t need this therapy love. She really is the most important part of my life just now and it’s so overwhelming. I won’t be dropping sessions for a long time yet but my adult self needs a life too so I need to trust that the emotional healing will come.

    • These two comments highlight yearning for more contact. For the child, it seems obvious that more contact would result in more good feeling and less pain. What the child doesn’t know or want to know is that going through the pain of missing the therapist is where the growth is occurring. I guess sometimes grown-ups have to set boundaries, just as they do with real children, after the 50th repetition of a game, or the second glass of water. Maybe the best is to keep answering the child that it just has to be that way, and going through the resulting anger and pain.

  • Wow, your post was timely for me. My therapist and I are about to deal with my inner child.

    One sentence stuck out that you wrote:
    “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’ve discovered that I have a wall that protects me. Not only does it protect me from harm but it also protects me from any care and compassion from others. It feels so uncomfortable for people to be so sweet to me. My therapist is getting ready to have me do some homework that will increase my compassion towards myself. She feels that I won’t be able to take in any care from her until I can from myself. Of course, my inner child totally wants to skip this step. 🙂 She wants to dive right in to the inner child stuff, be triggered and figure it all out.

    Another thought that might go with your posts is the idea of Childhood Emotional Neglect. There’s a website on this topic. My therapists have asked “when in your childhood did you feel this way” or “what happened in your childhood for you to feel this way”. It’s not what happened – it’s what didn’t happen.

  • What a great post! Thank you for hosting such a crucial and meaningful discussion.

    1) 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.
    -brilliant! Fostering this shift is slow and arduous because it’s not enough to “get it” cognitively.

    2)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.
    – can I suggest the following changes: the client’s job is to help herself move from the untrue conviction…
    -lastly, I don’t think the therapist should take the stance of changing the client but rather be honest that he isn’t willing to be the surrogate emotional mother to the client not because he thinks it’s not going to help, but because he simply isn’t willing.

    • Thanks for your comment and suggestions. They are a good counterpoint to what I wrote. Jeffery

    • Michael,
      If I may, I want to push back on your last point. I have been through the whole process that Dr. Smith describes so lucidly and brilliantly here, and one of the most crucial things for me was a therapist who gently, when I was ready to hear it, made it clear that EVEN IF he were willing, it was not possible for him to provide enough that the pain of what I did not have then was going to disappear. You tell an inner child you’re not willing and they are going to go looking for someone who is (which leads to a whole ‘nother set of disasters. Some of the worst damage I have seen inflicted by therapists on their clients, are the therapists who do not understand the crucial, and immovable, reality that they cannot provide enough love and care for their client to not need to face, mourn and heal from their losses. Instead they attempt to fill up a bottomless pit, burn out and desperate to survive, shove their unwitting client away (who after all thought they had finally found the source of life and love they’d been looking for their whole lives so yes, we’re a little intense) and repeat the abandonment and shaming of self that the client came to therapy to heal.) It wasn’t that my therapist did not care, and I dare say, even love me that was the problem. It was that I could no longer take in love on the same level as I could as a child, nor is it reasonable in an adult to expect the kind of care a child receives. But it truly helped me to stay and trust and listen, because I truly believed and trusted that my T was doing everything he was capable of doing. He was not withholding for the sake of withholding. In fact his “nos” became an important way for me to sort through what I could still receive to complete my development and what were losses that needed to be mourned.

      Victims of long term trauma/neglect, have very long and deep experiences of people who are not willing, they do not need their therapist to join in. All that “not willing” says to a deeply wounded person is “I’m not willing because you’re not worthy.” Saying “it’s not possible” goes along with “you were worthy and should have received this and I am sorry that I cannot give it.” The latter is healing while the former only adds to the already existing injury.

      Forgive me if I spoke too strongly, that was not my intention. I have very deep and passionate feelings on the topic.


      • Oh how I miss your insight into these matters. I continuously check your blog to see if you’ve written again. You and Moments of Change have helped be immensely in understanding and coming to terms with my inner child’s needs. Hope all is well with you!

  • I believe the therapist’s personality, flexibility and willingness are crucial to a client’s healing. My first therapist had strict boundaries: I could only come once a week, her sessions were 45 minutes and no contact outside of therapy. I would leave my sessions upset and convinced she was frustrated with me. I couldn’t “solve” any of my issues until the next session in which I still didn’t feel heard. It took forever to get through any of it because of her strict boundaries. I had such intense feelings towards her and couldn’t get her out of my head. It drove me crazy and she could not figure out how to lessen them. She would just tell me to reframe my thoughts which I now understand wouldn’t work on deep emotional issues.

    My current therapist gets it. She works from her home and doesn’t take insurance so perhaps she can be more flexible. My sessions are much longer which gives me time to be able to go deeper. I don’t call her but she is available by email with a response in 24 hours. She has found I am able to say a lot more via email than in my session. I’m not sure she is this flexible with all her clients, but she saw that it was something that would help me heal. Because of her sweet personality, flexibility, availability and willingness to accept my attachment, I don’t have the intense feelings I did with the first one. I guess you could say I am securely attached to my current therapist which lessens my anxiety. Ironically, her availability helps me not need/depend on her as much. My sessions are now every 1-1.5 weeks and I don’t think about her like I did the former therapist. If only other therapists understood how boundaries can negatively affect their clients and send their inner child into crisis.

  • Dr. Smith,
    You are a treasure and should be required reading for every therapist. I continue to be amazed at your ability to explain so clearly the complex processes involved in healing. What you have written so closely tracked what I experienced with my therapist.

    This really stood out for me:
    “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.”

    The willingness to give is what taught me that some things weren’t possible. When the anger and disappointment and hurt would rise up and tell me how worthless the relationship was, or how fake, or how it was, my therapist’s obvious care and responsiveness around things he could do, proved that it wasn’t the case. Even more important though, was his ability to engage and welcome all of my feelings of longing, desire, rage, disappointment, fear etc. without taking it personally. He had a deep trust in the process and conveyed that to me, which allowed me to trust that healing was possible. Which was incredibly necessary as I do not think I will ever face anything so painful or threatening as allowing myself to finally have and express those feelings. But he was there every step of the way, so I did not walk through my pain alone.

    What you described is a very long, slow, often chaotic, process but I do believe that healing is possible. I hope that both many clients and therapists read this and that it provides hope for them. Thank you for addressing this side of therapy. These feelings, with their life and death intensity, and the dependency and unmet needs evoked by therapy can often be so confusing and overwhelming for clients, that a clear explanation such as you have given, can go a long way towards their ability to tolerate it happening.


    • Thanks for your comment. I agree. In fact, my definition of adulthood is “having 100’% ownership of your own life.” What that means is knowing that the only one who can really know what is in your best interest is you and it is your job to determine what is best for you. Jeffery

  • Dr. Smith,

    This topic has been very passionate for me, mostly because of my intense feelings on the subject. I really wanted to attend a workshop on this material, but could not find anything offered to a client and not a therapist. Have you considered doing workshop? Even if done by internet. I want to understand better why I feel so intently the way I do. And also do workshops for therapists on how to deal with clients such as this. I appreciate you continuing to write on this subject matter. Please don’t quit. I learn more every time.

    • Thanks. I hadn’t thought of a workshop like that. Thank you for the suggestion. I’d have to research how to do it. JS

  • I have gotten so much out of your blog. My therapist has been going over all of these very things with me for years, but I always find that reading them in another place is what I need to crystallize the concepts. One this I wanted to share is something my therapist mentioned in session last week re: the relationship between shame/self-loathing defense and the longing for enmeshment. She said that even if we became enmeshed and fulfilled my ‘wish’, I wouldn’t be able to accept it because I don’t believe I’m worthy. It was an incentive for me to deal with my shame first so that I will be capable of accepting the available love she provides….which may mitigate the pain of healing the original loss. (I was relinquished for adoption at birth and adopted at 3 months, and have no memory or context for my original trauma, so getting to catharsis has always been a challenge. Hoping this helps!)

  • I am engaged in this dance with my therapist at the moment, only I didn’t know it. I live in fear of my strong emotions. I feel shame and worthlessness and hopelessness. I feel like I am standing on the precipice, staring down into an abyss. Why does healing have to be so complicated? It hurts so much. For the life of me I did not want to become attached to a therapist. Experiencing transference is utterly humiliating. Around and around I go: I want the music to stop. Healing vs replacement, at least I understand the process now, thank you.

  • Jake I know just how you feel, understanding the process does help and Jeffery explains it so eloquently. But understanding doesn’t stop the constant ache and the need to be with her does it? I know my inner child is raging to be with her, to be held and heard and loved. But I feel the same after every session, just wanting to be straight back in her therapy room, I dread the end of every 50 mins I have with her. So how are we to deal with this ? Apparently we have to trust in a process of healing that takes place often over a long period. I am prepared to trust and to work at it but the pain is unbearable and the part of therapy I just was not prepared for

    • Chimp, For what it’s worth, I am doing my best to stay with the pain and miss my therapist, imperfectly so. I spent part of the morning googling their name and indulging in some sort of connection fantasy, like they are an actual part of my life. The googling/connection fantasy is so humiliating to admit to. I have to put this therapist down. Functioning with this emotional agony is one of the hardest things I have had to do. I rage at the injustice of it all. Thank you for your kindness.

  • Jake I rage too but through talking with my therapist I have also reached the realisation that the rage of the inner child is all part of the process and she needs to know about it. I also looked her up over her break just to feel her presence but feeling so ashamed I admitted it to her and she understood completely and made me feel OK about it. I think this all takes a long time and whilst I question why I am putting myself through constant and unremitting pain I also have glimpses of what it can mean to be a complete person and to settle this inner child’s need for love in a way that is healing.

    • Chimp, Thank you for giving such a clear and succinct account of how experiencing the pain and healing is the path to resolution.


  • Dear Jeffery, Dear All,

    May I join you in expressing my gratitude to You Jeffery for taking the time and writing so beautifully about this subject again. Your posts and all the comments from people helped me through the worst parts of the healing process. Now, after 5 years I feel much better, Im not so dependent, I think my inner child had a safe upbringing with the help of my truly wonderful therapist. Im still working on it but now I think she is around 13 or 14 years old, ready to discover the world. I just hope this will also mean that after 40 years of loneliness I finally will find someone who truly loves me, appreciates me and whom I can love back. I do not feel lonely any more, but I feel I deserve a partner after all I went through, after all that years I spent in the darkness.

    I am eternally grateful to my therapist of course as she was truly doing a wonderful job. It was very important that she was clear about the fact that it can not be her who will fill in the emptiness but can be with me while I walk through it. Expressed the willingness and went way out of her way in trying to help me.

    I just want to say to everyone here, that there is HOPE! There is light at the end, but to reach it, need to go through the darkest parts of this very long tunnel of hopelessness and pain.

  • Jeffery Thanks, I have come to this realisation through really honest and live discussion with my therapist and the thoughts that are shared here. We have talked about finding a bridge between my adult self and inner child to bring these persons closer and eventually find how to love that raging 3 year old self without needing my therapist to do it for me. It feels a long way off and very scary but I trust her and the process to help me get there.

  • Dr. Smith ,

    My adult part want to say thank you for this explains clearly what needs to happen. The inner child is crying ….feeling so much pain that this relation cannot last. Thinking I’m a type of pation that look for a mother replacement.Rather than pain, healing and changing myself. It feels so good to be loved at last.i have a lovely therapist that accepts and love me like no one ever before. I am at the point in therapy where my adult part understand everything and want to say goodbye and walk away. Just to be free of pain. From what I read and understood it does not work that way. I am already attached the inner child is here and needs to be taken care of. My adult part don’t want this child part in myself. I would like to disappear now and do everything in order to stay away from that pain. I don’t think I ll be ever ready to decided to end therapy myself without drama and feeling abandoned….any way thank you.

  • In my adult head I fully understand that my therapist is not withholding, that she, and no one else, can ever fulfil my needs totally. I also understand that full emotional healing is necessary and possible. However, what continues to amaze and baffle me is how strongly the inner child hangs on to the hope of substitution.

    My therapist just told me she is going on holiday in a few weeks. Adult me understands and accepts this need for her to have a break and I am quite capable of functioning well without her for a few weeks. However, I find myself feeling anger and sadness and when I contemplate it, it is still the little child stamping her feet at being abandoned and wanting to insist that her therapist doesn’t care about her because she is going away.

    I have hope that in time, as I express these child like feelings to my therapist, that the child will understand her therpist’s limitations, but still accept her care and will be able to internalise enough of her this care that healing takes place.

    I am hopeful but it doesn’t half feel like a long journey! Thanks for writing this to encourage myself and others on our way.


  • Great write on inner child work – but I have a whole different issue at hand … I have been working with my therapist for 10 years and we began working on inner child work around 5 years ago as we worked hard to have the inner child trust the therapy process . . . . . my issue is not attachment to the therapist, but the opposite. I FEAR dependency .. my inner child FEARS dependency on anyone making it harder for my therapist to really pull the young part in. Just reading your article on attachment to therapist spun up all kinds of feelings as I never allow myself to get too attached. I work with the young part and let my therapist work along side of us …. I don’t allow him to fully parent the young part in me, that’s my job … just having his support is helpful to heal and take steps when needed…. I write in my blog about my healing process in therapy …. but this was a good write up, but it really made me feel “oh my god, no way am I dependent or attached to my therapist” .. so my problem is opposite.. my therapist knows this and it makes it hard sometimes because she is stubborn.

  • I have become so interested in this discussion and keep looking for new comments! I am talking with my therapist about laying on her sofa, I have never done this before but she says it’s a way for my inner child to just be without distraction. The idea is very inviting, but I also fear exposing myself like that, it feels very different the thought of laying down. What are your experiences? I notice the photo for this thread is a child laying in his back screaming ….

  • To my complete embarrassment, I am feeling all of these emotions about my therapist. I am longing for a dad that was never ever emotionally available. Pretty much I know though he may have loved me, he didn’t like me. Throw in some abuse by a sick uncle and you’ve got me… My therapist is not even old enough to be my dad– he’s maybe 15 years older than I. Ugh. I’ve figured out so many things with his help, things I never understood. But now what. I feel like this attachment is like the elephant in the room for me. He seems to really care for my well-being and it does feel so nice to have a man(who I view as an “authority figure”– is that screwed up too??) who gives a crap about me.
    We have never addressed my feelings about this in therapy. And I don’t know if I am brave enough to be the one to do so– I don’t really like conflict or anything that would make anyone uncomfortable. Plus,I am so afraid he would just stop our therapy because I have crossed the boundaries. Do you think he just knows about all of this inner child stuff and is able to figure it out for me?
    Just reading this blog and the comments actually makes me feel less guilty and maybe more “normal-ish”.

    • Thanks, TLC. I think a lot of people are or have been in this situation, on the threshold of doing what you must, disclose. My only suggestion is that there are always ways of breaking down the revelation to smaller steps or trial balloons. Yours, Jeffery

      • Jeffrey~
        Wondering if you could tell me what might be written on some of those “trial balloons”? I’ve had two sessions since my comment here and I am no closer to being brave enough to disclose my feelings, nor do I know exactly what to say. I get embarrassed just thinking about it.
        Also, do therapists ever work at making some of their clients feel this attachment because it was so lacking when the child was young? When I write that out it sounds really dumb… but I’ll not delete because I really do wonder.
        Boy, the power of a loving dad is so incredibly important in a child’s life. I never even realized how much the lack of a loving one impacted me. The remainder of my life will be spent reminding daddies how their words, actions, and presence can make or break their child– especially their little girls, a relationship that is so often overlooked.

        • Dear TLC and others trying to tell their therapist: My usual thought is to talk first about the difficulty disclosing, rather than the thing itself. That might be, “I feel ashamed to talk about some feelings I have,” or “I am having a worry about how you might react if I talk about some embarrassing feelings.” You don’t have to disclose till you are ready, but it is OK to try to soften the landing first.
          Hope that is of some help. JS

          • Ok… still haven’t disclosed–yes, I’m that big of a chicken. But I need to be hit over the head with the reason WHY I need to tell my therapist about these feelings.

          • It is positive (Unless the therapist fails to handle the disclosure right) to tell one’s therapist because that is why therapists are there, to help with healing of difficult emotions. My post on catharsis tells how this works. Also, the free e-book (free for subscribing) has a lot on how emotions heal. Even better, Chimp’s description below gives a vivid glimpse of how the only way I know to heal this kind of pain is to “go through” it in a shared context. Jeffery

    • TLC–when I was in your situation, I role-played the conversation I planned on having with my therapist three times with three different friends. I never would have been able to do it without having role-played it first.

      Spitting out the words was nearly impossible the first two times I role-played it, even though my friends already knew exactly what I was going to say. I had such a hard time the first time around that my friend finally told me to just pull up the text message I had sent him explaining the situation and just read the text to him, which was what I did. The second time with a different friend was also hard, and it took me over 40 minutes to spit out the words. The third time was much easier, which was lucky since that conversation happened only an hour before my therapy session.

      Anyway, hope my experience helps you in some way. Disclosure is paramount. Good luck!

      • I like the text message idea. Just not even sure how to word it yet. How did your therapist react? Was it terribly embarrassing for you both? Ugh.

        • My therapist reacted really well. It was not terribly embarrassing for us both. He wasn’t embarrassed at all. I was slightly embarrassed, but once I said it, it was so much easier and less embarrassing/shameful than it was beforehand.

          I actually did what Dr. Smith suggested above. I started by saying, “I feel a lot of shame around these feelings so it’s hard for me to talk about.” Then I proceeded to stall while my therapist tried to get me to talk about it, and I finally did.

          When I first experienced these feelings, I felt terribly ashamed, like there was definitely something wrong with me. Like you, I felt embarrassed just thinking about it. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out again. Terminate therapy and never talk to him again. All of those things seemed easier than disclosure.

          But, once I disclosed, the feelings of shame and embarrassment diminished significantly. I went through that whole thing before I found this website and Dr. Smith’s book on the subject. When I eventually stumbled upon this site, I was surprised by how common this experience is. Friends of mine who work or have worked in the field of psychotherapy kept telling me that my feelings were very common and not at all abnormal, but I didn’t believe them. Now I do. So if your therapist is experienced, he’s likely encountered this many times before and knows how to handle it.

          • By the way, the text message was sent to a friend who agreed to role-play the conversation with me. I didn’t disclose to my therapist via text. I did it during a session.

  • I had some comments on this part:

    “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.”

    I do not feel that my inner child goes to “unwillingness” but rather jumps to “unworthiness.” If the therapist doesn’t come through, the child deems itself unworthy, not good enough, but thinks that the therapist DOES come through like she wants for other, worthy people. Rather than going into a strategy for motivating the therapist, it goes into a strategy for attempting to make itself more worthy. It thinks “if I was just good enough, then he would give this to me.” Actually…now that I read through this again…I guess that is exactly what my version of “motivating the therapist” looks like. Just differently worded. This part hit a nerve for me, because it sounds like the inner child/I am manipulative of the therapist if I don’t get what I want… which I associate with being bad… which overwhelms me with shame.

    Again, this part:

    “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.”

    My inner child does not respond to this kind of response from the therapist as betrayal; she responds to it as rejection because of “not being good enough. She turns it on herself: “he said ‘no’ because you are not good enough, you are not worthy.” And, as its measure of hope, it goes into “what can I change to become worthy?” Which manifests, for me, as created ‘rules’ to some ‘game’ that will somehow = achieving worthiness. (E.g., “If I don’t email my therapist for 3 days, then I’m worthier, and he will care more about me; If I go down to once a week sessions, then I will be a better person, worthier, and he will care more when he sees me next; if I lose weight, then I will be thinner, which makes me worthier, etc..)

    Another quote:

    “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.”

    I love this.

    I would like this written on a piece of paper to carry around with me.

    I had just gotten to a point with my former therapist where I was finally grieving what I would never have from my parents. I WAS getting from this therapist things that I didn’t get in childhood, but it wasn’t a substitution…and he knew that, and I knew that. Getting it from him did not mean that I got it when I should have from the people who should have given it. Getting comfort and physical contact (which he allowed) from him meant that I could get comfort and physical contact NOW, not then, and I recognized that difference.

    This therapist is now leaving…moving across the country (and also just diagnosed with cancer) So, now, I am grieving losing that contact NOW. I had it for such a short, short time. AND I’m still grieving having never gotten it…. double grief. And retraumatization, really. I am always of the mind that I would rather never have had it than to have had it and lost it. And I still believe that.

    I explained to my new therapist last week that my previous therapist’s physical contact with me had been the turning point for everything. That I’d turned a corner and started majorly healing…because I’d finally gotten it. There was nothing left to want for. It’s actually very much like this article says… the child asked for little things …more and more over time… in very small increments. And then, when my previous therapist sat with me on the floor, an arm around me, and even gave comforting “hushes” when I cried there beside him…. that was it. That was what I had always wanted, had dreamt of since childhood, had thought was just fiction… and I had it. And everything changed. There was no more seeking of more; I didn’t want more. And, I began to feel more comfortable going out and just living my life, knowing that I had this place of comfort when I needed it. That it would still be there. No more striving to be good enough to deserve it.

    And then I lost it. Suddenly and too soon.

    And all hell has broken loose.

    Another quote:
    “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.”

    God…so much this. I’m choked up reading it.

    “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.”

    I’m afraid this is what I’m doing with my new therapist now. Still seeking a mother. And I don’t want to do this again.

    But I think, with my new therapist, we are going down a different path that I hope he can hold us to: one where I’m not seeking for him to replace. He’s definitely encouraging self soothing, self mothering. And, I’m trying not to ask replacement from him — but I am asking steadiness in his presence. I hope that is OK. I guess my struggle is…where is the line between “seeking replacement” and actually asking for what you actually need right now? How do you know the difference? What is it “ok” or “acceptable” or “normal” or “healthy” to need? Multiple sessions? Between-session contact? (Which I can’t have.) IS physical contact OK to need/want? (Which I also assume I can’t have and don’t really want right now anyways since I barely know this new therapist at all.)

  • TLC I can really understand how you are feeling and that need but also fear of disclosure. I started by telling my therapist I had a sense of longing, the that I felt strongly attached and gradually I was able to say I have feelings of love for her, all of which she has been so reassuring and fine about, no need to feel you will be dropped I think good therapists expect this transference and work with it . The problem comes, in my case and some others here, when the therapist becomes the centre of your life. I am about to go away on a long haul trip and leaving her is unbearable agony. We have talked and talked and prepared but still I can’t bear it. This is where the inner child just takes over and controls the adult part of me that has to work! I understand what’s going on but it doesn’t resolve the pain. These inner children seem to rise up and take over our lives in a way that doesn’t always feel helpful.

  • Dr. Smith,

    I also want to thank you for your work. It has helped me tremendously to become aware of my inner child and notice when feelings and desires come from her. I bring up these ideas in therapy, and my therapist is receptive to them (or perhaps he already knows about them). It is an incredibly useful framework with which to view the healing process.

    I really wish that there’s a forum where we could discuss these ideas. None of my friends are interested in these things. Would you consider creating a discussion forum on your website?

    Thanks again!


  • Here’s a poem I wrote for my therapist. I think you guys would understand.

    Be everything to me:
    Father, lover, friend — the rock I can lean on, my light in the darkness.
    Let me give you everything:
    Love, devotion, trust, and admiration —imagined conversations and what innocence I have left.

    A little girl dwells in me — 
    she’s only three or four,
    and she knows what it means to be all alone.
    She’s frozen all her wishes,
    hoping for some day to come,
    someone to find her.

    Be everything to me:
    Teacher, savior, god — the one I can count on, my song in the silence.
    Let me give you all I have:
    Rapture, desire, infatuation, and delight — you can have my body any time.

    A little girl dwells in me — 
    she’s holding out her hand for you;
    won’t you take her in your arms?
    Love her, protect her, tell her it’s alright,
    wipe away her tears.
    The night is cold, but you won’t leave her.

    Be everything to me:
    everything I’ve always wanted and always been denied.
    I will give you everything:
    the sky, the stars, the seasons eternal,
    just promise you’ll love me.
    Don’t walk away.

    A little girl dwells in me — 
    she wants you to love her;
    she needs you to see her.
    Hold her, kiss her, tell her she’s special,
    show her the light.
    This life is hard, but you’ll be there for her.

    • Kayla I am 9000 miles away from my therapist just waiting to Skype with her. Your poem touched many nerves, I have cried every day that I have been away. I find it unbearable that this 3 year old in me consumes my energy in this way, I want to be stronger and less needy. I wonder what Jeffery thinks about trying to control the inner child or should she just exert her will and anxiety freely ? I’m always trying to push her down.

      • Chimp–I don’t know what Jeffery thinks, and I’m not an expert. I only know from my own experience, but based on my experience, it seems that the inner child is both the source of much pain and difficulty AND the motivation for healing. So constantly trying to push her down is probably not going to be productive in the long run. I think it’s important to listen to her and reassure her as much as you can. My therapist told me that we sometimes do to ourselves what our parent/caretaker did to us when we were young–so if our parent/caretaker used to ignore or dismiss our feelings or try to get us to stop expressing feelings, we will grow up to do the exact same thing to ourselves–dismiss/ignore/suppress our own feelings.

        Jeffery mentioned this above–that there are times when you have to set boundaries with your inner child, the way you would with a real child. And there are times you have to act to protect the child, even if its against her wishes. But even as you do this, it’s still important to stay in contact with her and feel her feelings as much as possible.

        I terminated therapy with a previous therapist to whom I was very attached. My adult self didn’t know if I could trust him and felt that he was unsafe for my inner child. (And, in any case, he wasn’t a very skilled therapist so there was also the prospect of going on interminably with no prospect of real healing.) But my inner child clung to him.

        I terminated therapy and suddenly had a relapse of my eating disorder. I have not had a relapse that bad for over 17 years, but suddenly I was binging and purging almost everyday, sometimes two or three times a day. I knew my inner child was throwing a temper tantrum. It did not stop until I found a new therapist I could bond to. Anyway, I’m not sure why I’m telling you this, but it’s an interesting tidbit.

        If it makes you feel any better, my therapist is currently out of the country, and I won’t see him for another 2.5 weeks. No Skype sessions either. (His type of therapy really can’t be done effectively over Skype anyway. And he’s there to supervise other therapists and see his own supervisor so I’m sure the last thing he wants during his trip is more of my interminable needy clinginess.)

        I hope you feel better. There is always hope. 🙂

  • Could you please explain the difference between being attached emotionally to your therapist and codependency? Are they one and the same?

    • Dear reader, Attachment to a therapist is a lot like a very young child’s attachment to Mom. When she comes home, it feels wonderful and your heart is bursting with love. When she says she is leaving, it feels like the world is crumbling and the sense of grief is overwhelming. As for codependency, I wrote a post on it a long time ago. Here is the link: Codependency in my Psychology Today Blog.

  • Dr. Smith,
    I also really gain a lot from all of your works. Thank you! I was wondering if you can reply to Toomanycats’s questions about how do you know what is a real need today and what is the inner child looking for replacement instead of healing?

    • Dear New Reader, Toomanycats asked, ” I guess my struggle is…where is the line between “seeking replacement” and actually asking for what you actually need right now? How do you know the difference? What is it “ok” or “acceptable” or “normal” or “healthy” to need? Multiple sessions? Between-session contact? (Which I can’t have.) IS physical contact OK to need/want? (Which I also assume I can’t have and don’t really want right now anyways since I barely know this new therapist at all.”

      This is a negotiation between two people, or maybe three. I think what the child seeks is, most of all, a sign of willingness on the part of the therapist. The actual comforting behavior that is sought may be more of a concrete token to represent fulfillment of a need. Often, once it is granted, as in the case of Toomanycats, that seems to be enough. In my mind, there are different qualities of tokens. The gold standard is empathic understanding. Other, but more concrete tokens are things like touch or extra contact between sessions. In my mind, things like pills are often used that way, but are inadequate substitutes. Where is the line between seeking what was missing, and receiving adult comforting can’t be defined concretely. Maybe the best way to know is experiencing the grief for what was missed out on originally and accepting that those needs can’t be fulfilled. Even with doing the grief work, it is not surprising that an inner child might still be ready to try again to find the Mommy who never was. But I think, as in the case of Toomanycats, that the search was no longer desperate. Then the task is to internalize enough from the therapist to be able to turn to the outside world as a source of relationship and comfort.

  • Thank you for the post.
    It is the answer to many questions I’ve face regarding therapy. It describes my inner child relationship with my therapist, and encourages me to remain in therapy as I can now see more clearly that healing is possible and even likely!
    Thank you

  • Hello,

    I have been reading your blog and I can identify with everything you’ve talked about attachment. I started seeing a therapist at my university since I can’t afford to get therapy anywhere else. I have seen her about 6 times and I am already so attached to her. Sometimes she thinks I am uncomfortable talking to her, but I really enjoy my time with her and think about her a lot of the time. Last time I saw her, she mentioned that it seemed I was attached to her, but I didn’t say anything. This is upsetting to me because there is a limit on how many times I get to see her a year and I will run out of sessions soon. I really wish I could continue seeing her for a longer time; it makes me sad to know that it will end too soon. Any advice for me on how to deal with this? I’d appreciate it very much. Thanks!

    • Forming an attachment is usually the beginning of a healing process and a good thing. Talking about and dealing with limitations and rules should be part of the therapy, and a very important part. Jeffery

  • Hannah I wonder if you are at a UK or US university? If UK you might find you can extend your sessions if your counsellor is aware of what you are thinking and feeling. If not, depending on your reason for therapy there are a number of UK charities that provide counselling for young people free of charge e.g Young Minds. But do let your therapist know how you feel so she can help you, it sounds like she already knows to some extent. Good luck

  • Jeffrey et. Al:

    Jeffery wrote: “Attachment to a therapist is a lot like a very young child’s attachment to Mom. When she comes home, it feels wonderful and your heart is bursting with love. When she says she is leaving, it feels like the world is crumbling and the sense of grief is overwhelming.”

    I would have to say this is what each therapy session is like for us right now, and when time’s up and it’s time to leave – the inner child has a melt down and will not leave. She cuts off her adult self and cuts off the therapist. This is causing a great deal of trouble, especially when the therapist has already provided every known effort to appease and grant this child’s needs. She offers hugs, had held her, read to her, and has provided much empathy and love. The inner child’s anger, grief and other emotions are so intense it’s often not relieved until several hours after the session has ended. Her adult self has to literally force them out of the office… like the child has holding onto the adults leg and is being dragged out to the car as the adult tries to leave.

    I am wondering if any of you have any suggestions as to how to handle such outbursts.

    • Dear LT, This and the next post are really asking for some ideas or even guidelines for therapists. I’m out of the US on vacation, but I’ll try to respond. These situations are so difficult to turn into growth. Jeffery

    • LT whilst you are waiting for Jeffery to respond, I can tell you that I feel the same after almost every session. My inner child rages and weeps in the car as I leave and sometimes doesn’t settle until the next session and then she goes through the whole cycle again. But I do also have moments of calm and adult analysis and on this occasions I can get up after 50 mins and say goodbye and feel OK. So what I think is that I try to learn from the adult experience, remind myself that I can leave and be safe, that she will still be there next time and have trained myself to leave after 50 mins, having been through a period of turning the clock round because I was so angry about time being limited. The inner child does still hate the session ending but mostly copes, except for today where we touched on some painful material and it took all my strength to get up from the sofa and leave and I cried all the way home! But the other thing is that I talk to her about it a lot, letting her know that I long to stay, hate her clock, rage against leaving and yearn for the next time seems very important

  • Dr. Smith,

    I am so grateful to have come across your posts and these comments. I relate so much to them.

    My therapist who I have seen for the last 8.5 years 3 time a week has decided to end our relationship.

    I have a very intense attachment to him and am extremely dependent on him. I felt like he was replacing the lack of a good father figure in my life — even though I know he can’t truly replace what I never had; that reality is just too difficult at time for my inner child to accept because it just feels so unfair.

    A few years ago, we started to speak about my inner child, and I felt so liberated and accepted and safe. He told me he didn’t want me repressing them anymore and that I could share them with him. That it was okay and I was okay.

    For the most part, my therapist and I had an amazing relationship, but I was never able to internalize what he said or form a secure attachment to him, yet. But my childhood was chaotic, and We wanted me to learn to meet the needs I never got as a kid with him.

    However, 9 months ago, he changed our relationship and sessions dramatically.
    He became inconsistent, and I was so triggered and felt unheard. During this time, I kept telling him that it felt like he was neglecting my feelings and my inner child. But he’d just say he isn’t. I kept telling him he was hurting me, but he wouldn’t stop or change what he was doing.

    I feared getting better because I didn’t want to not need him and not see him and my desperation between sessions was agonizing. My biggest fear was and is losing him and we talked about that often.

    A couple of months ago my therapist apologized, and said we’d focus on feelings and that functioning would come (he now uses my lack of functioning during the time he said to not push myself as proof I can’t function an da reason to do what he’s doing).
    he wanted to get to the repressed feeling from those months and he saw and understood why those months effected me so much (because of my childhood).
    Once we were beginning to access the repressed feelings, my depression spiked. He said we needed new techniques because he didn’t know how to help me anymore. He said he wanted us to go to an intensive treatment center and then we’d use the new techniques together after.

    We stopped talking bout the repressed feelings and he’d only talk about the treatment center. At one point, he decided unless I agreed to go, he’d stop seeing me — which he did for a few sessions until I gave in.
    We started to dig into the attachment and child parts (but it was in a more critical manner which was painful but at least was something) and then he went away for a week (but beforehand said we’d continue talking bout the attachment, which we didn’t) and when he came back, he said that he decided to cut me down to once a week starting the following week and the other days I’d see his fill-in.
    and that’s when he told me that he thought it would be best if I moved onto another therapist after the treatment center to avoid falling back into the attachment with him because he felt it would be too “easy” to fall back into the intensity (which he never made seem bad before now).

    The rawest, vulnerable parts of me that he helped bring to the surface suddenly became some of the biggest reasons to send me to the treatment center and end our relationship. He said my attachment and dependency got too intense and the child parts were more intense and there more often. He feels they’re holding me back, and so he’s just abandoning me.
    I feel like my inner child started to go into hiding and I’m repressing that part of me because I’m too scared to let that out.
    He says all my reactions back up what he is doing is right — but that makes me feel even worse and want to hide more. Him ripping away when I’m this attached and trusted him to not abandon me feels so damaging and traumatizing and indescribably painful.

    I don’t understand the sudden change from working through these feelings to them being the main reasons to end our relationship.
    I feel like he got me to feel safe and got the inner child to come out and now he’s giving up and leaving. He thinks the attachment is hurting me and keeping us stuck. and that he’s reached his limits and my potential is greater than he can help me reach. So he’s ripping away the attachment and the father-figure in my life is now abandoning me.

    I feel so betrayed, lost, and confused. His responses feel colder and more rehearsed now. And I need him to change his mind and stay — the inner child part of me is maintaining hope because I need him to not leave, but I’m so scared he will. And I know him leaving is worse for me and will cause long-term issues.
    I just don’t know what to do. It’s so confusing and painful.

  • I am there. I am exactly there. I am now with my second therapist. I got terribly attached to my first therapist. I never told her and I felt so uncomfortable that I wanted to run away and at the same time spend all my time in therapy with her. She finally ended therapy. Any all my issues got even worse. I am not seeing a new therapist for a bit more than a year. I’d do anything to not show any kind of attachment to her and keep the distance (even if my thoughts are different). Results are, that almost nothing is coming out of that therapy. But there is so much shame involved in telling her or anybody about my attachment thoughts. I feel so desperate about this dilemma….

    • Dear Reader, I hope you have read the other comments in this thread. There is lots of room for hope, but by going through your feelings rather than avoiding them. JS

  • I *think*my therapist opened the door wide open for me to disclose my attachment to him and I would still not walk through it. We were discussing type of father I could substitute for my earthly father for when I think about God. My relationship with God is pretty screwed up right now.
    So my therapist said–“Is there anyone you trust enough to use as a temporary substitute to get the image of your own dad out of your head?” I choked– I wanted to tell him that he would be that person, but I just couldn’t do it. What the heck? Feeling loser-ish right now.

    • Dr. Smith can correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the issue of patients being unable to talk about their attachment to their therapists resulting in this important subject going undiscussed for months or even years is partly due to therapists not working in the here and now. If Irv Yalom was your therapist, he would have gotten you to talk about your attachment already because he constantly asks his patients about their feelings towards him. I think Dr. Yalom would say the patient’s feeling about the therapist is one of the most important things to discuss in therapy.

      My therapist takes a different approach than Dr. Yalom, but he also works in the here and now. This is a different therapist than the one I talked about in my comment above. I’ve been seeing him since the middle of May, and I just told him about my attachment to him at our last session. Because this wasn’t the first time I’ve told a therapist about these feelings, it was much easier. My therapist agrees with me that attachment is not only normal but necessary for therapy to work. He said he usually wants the attachment to happen as soon as possible so we can get on with things.

      • Kayla, This is a very important point. You are right that therapists do have a responsibility to use their honed senses and intuition, as well as frankly asking, in order to monitor the state of the relationship. For my next post, I plan to talk to therapists about this issue and your point is part of that response. Yours, Jeffery

  • I agree fully with your point Kayla. My therapy focuses around my attachment and the underlying conscious and unconscious issues that interact with the attachment and therefore our relationship. If she didn’t know we would have very little to work with and therapy would stagnate I feel sure. When I feel angry with her, one of the things I feel she could have helped me prepare for is the pain of attachment. I genuinely had no idea it would happen so intensely and how consuming it is. I say she could have told me from her experience that it could happen, she says it’s different for everyone. But what about therapists being more able or willing to share with clients their thoughts and experience about attachment more openly at the start?

  • I don’t know what to do. I’m so terribly conflicted about my therapeutic process.

    I’m a fearful avoidant and I’ve stuck with “therapist” for the past 2 months after discovering I had an attachment to her.

    In April of this year, before my attachment occurred to me, I stored “therapist” as a contact in my phone. This is a rarity that I usually only do for close family members. No friends are in my phone. I didn’t even realize I did this, as it was brought to my attention. I told “therapist” this and her reply was, “It’s about time. It’s only been a year.” She was joking. Since, we’ve sporadically touched on the significance of the relationship pertaining to those stored as contacts in my phone.

    Last week, she and I argued about the course of treatment and I walked out and as I did, I turned back and told her that I know I needed to pay her and that I’d mail in her remaining payments (she eventually asked me to come back and in our last session, she told me that this was basically me saying, “F-ck you, therapist” which is not what meant at all. I simply owed her money).

    I went back to hear how I wanted her to fail. How I didn’t want her to succeed. How I was pointing the finger at her (because I asked her to “see” me). Eventually we had an animated exchange and she said, “I don’t care if I’m stored in your phone or not. Maybe your friends do, but I don’t. It’s your relationships your harming.” I left, devastated. She had promised a reparative experience of attachment but instead, I found this to be an exact duplicate of my childhood.

    I don’t know what to do. I’m attached to her. Do I return or is sitting there with her in another session just subjecting myself to cruel and unusual punishment? I worry that if I withdraw from her emotionally, she’ll detect and I”ll be “punished” like I felt I was the last time.

    She was fully aware of how symbolic being in my phone was/is. It means you’re in my life. For my attachment figure to say, “I don’t care” was the worst feeling of rejection.

    I have no idea what to do. Is it worse if I stay? If I go? Work it out? Another therapist? This is painful either way and I’m trusting this person who’s now hurt me. I’m at a loss for what to do.

    • Ang, I can’t give you direct advice, but in general, unless a therapist is clearly not handling the relationship appropriately, it is more valuable to clarify what was going on on both sides before making a decision. A context where the patient walks out of the session and the therapist responds on instinct to a powerful rupture, both parties might be expected to say things that could be interpreted as negative. An attempt to understand each other can reveal either that the break can be repaired and lead to an even greater understanding, or that something irreparable has happened. Either way, that is very valuable information. Also, as I have mentioned in earlier posts, if the situation remains unclear, a consultation can be a very good way to gain something positive from an otherwise unhelpful occurrence. Jeffery

  • I commented several years ago on another thread. I have now been in therapy for close to six years. I am very attached to my therapist but because of my constant pushing-pulling it has become exhausting. You spoke of “basic trust”. I still have a huge issue with trusting my therapist. I think he is a good therapist and a kind caring man but trust is an issue. Being dependent on him is horribly scary for me. The anger gets directed at him in order to push him away. There are times when he wants me to call him when I am in need but refuse to do so. The process for me has felt like a gradual loss of any hope for the future. A nearly constant feeling of emptiness. When I allow myself to get my needs met by my therapist it feels really good but I am unable to maintain that connection. In my sessions I consistently regress to an infant that is unable to speak. All I can do is make nearly constant eye contact. I understand how infants do that with their caregiver. The issue is that the regression seems to be nearly constant. Trying to have a life, work, etc. is very difficult. I have no support system outside of his office. My family is useless. All of my “friends” have abandoned me. I have changed so much that they don’t know me anymore. I find making friends incredibly difficult because I don’t think they truly care and because I don’t trust anyone. I am pretty much alone in the world. When someone finds it incredibly difficult to trust anyone what advice would you give them? I believe my therapist when I am with him because I can see it in his eyes. Once I leave, it is gone.

    • Doug, Thank you for commenting again. One general thought is a consultation for both you and your therapist. Sometimes a chance to discuss with a third party can break a log jam. The other thought I have is that trusting is a lot like letting oneself fall into water backwards. It’s a “what the heck” feeling, maybe possible if there has been a lessening in the sense of life-and-death over time, so that the stakes become lower. I hope those thoughts are of help. Jeffery

  • I think I am going through the pain of the old trauma. But it hurts so so bad. And life just feels like pain pain and more pain. My therapy now has a definite end and even though it’s far far in the future my inner child is gripping hold of me with the pain and fear and abandonment and rejection that this brings. I feel like what is the purpose of life? It’s just pain intermingle with moments of happiness but then more pain. My safe place is gone.

    Sorry. I am trying to say something. You say that the therapist should help bring you through the pain but how, how? She sat with me in my agony but at the end I had to pull it together and leave. I am still in agony. In her room I couldn’t look at her, I couldn’t receive from her. I am lost.

    How is this going to help? After all this time, I still don’t get it?? The pain still seems to be getting worse not better. When does it start getting better?

    Sorry. I know you probably cannot answer most of this. I just… this post has been SO helpful but I still don’t get it.

    • Dear H, One sentence stands out: “I couldn’t receive from her.” Could it be that that is the problem? Is an inner child protecting herself by not depending on another? That might be something to work on.


  • Jeffery,
    THank you for your response. I don’t usually reply when a blogger answers my comments because I figure this is not a dialogue, more of a place to air thoughts about your writing. But in this case I am going to respond partly because I find your insights fascinating and helpful but also because I wonder if my thoughts might help others who are in a similar position.

    You ask if perhaps there is an inner child protecting herself by not depending on another. Complicated is not even a strong enough word to begin to describe how confused a web this inner child work weaves.

    In one sense, I depend on my therapist so very heavily. I call her outside of sessions, I often think about her almost constantly, I find her and her room a safe place and i feel like without her I will fall apart. That is dependency, right?

    On the other hand, perhaps you are right. Within my sessions, my inner child struggles to look at her, struggles to even listen to her, struggles to be there. I think my inner child is perhaps ‘protecting herself by not depending on another’ right in that moment where it counts, because if I depend on her in that moment then the pain and torture of leaving her room is going to be so much greater than it already is (and trust me, my legs could barely hold me up when I left this week). But in some ways, is that not healthy? Is it not healthy to ensure that when my hour is up, I can still walk out?

    Finally, the added complication of all of this, and something I think my therapist and I are already battling with, is, even if, with all my might, I WANT the inner child to depend on her, how can I MAKE that happen? I think it IS happening but the pace is SO mortifyingly slow and now, now I discover that I may run out of time.

    I have worked very very hard on these inner child issues and I want so much to see it through. But right now, I wonder if there will ever be an end, if this can ever get better?

    Excuse me if this is too much heart sharing for such a place. Please keep up the good work Jeffery.


    • H, I have written in a number of places that there is a hierarchy in the quality of things one gets from a therapist. Extra time, meds, contact outside of sessions are not the highest quality because they have less healing power. They are more reassuring. The highest quality is allowing empathic connection to do the healing. I don’t know any trick for making this happen, but making it a subject of conversation in the therapy is a powerful way to keep moving forward. JS