Jaylynne Chase-Jacobsen, “Growing Up – The Therapeutic Process,” National Association of Social Workers Colorado Chapter Newsletter: The Integrator, April 1991.
Babies are born with many undeveloped capacities. They feel full and alive, responding to the environment with their whole beings. Unfortunately, many of their capacities go unseen, unrecognized; in fact often, attacked and despised. Over time, everyone begins to feel deficient due to these narcissistic wounds of not being seen, mirrored and supported as children. We develop defenses to deal with these feelings and to deny our deficiencies. We try to make up for these deficiencies and feel full through relationships, activities, jobs, eating, drinking, shopping, just to name a few; but these never make up for what we didn’t get. We may feel angry and/or hopeless. Until we confront the painful fact that we didn’t get what we needed and go into the hurt, fear, helplessness and hopelessness, we will keep uselessly trying to find a “cure” outside of ourselves. It will never work.
This situation and the amount of dysfunction involved occurs in degrees. Some people are more desperate and dysfunctional than others. Also, it is important to remember that the defenses and dysfunctional behavior helped us to survive as children. It is only now, as adults, that these behaviors are really dysfunctional. They cause us pain by recreating in the present the very situations that we needed to defend against in the past. For example, we may be overly critical of ourselves, just as our parents were, in order to identify with, and therefore maintain, the connection to them. This feels better than separating and feeling the aloneness that would result.
When children don’t get their needs met, they carry these unmet needs into adulthood and continue to search for the good, loving, giving, present, contactful parents they never had. We look for these qualities in our mates, transferring the good Mommy or Daddy onto them, only to feel disappointed, hurt and angry once again when these parental objects let us down (which, of course, they must). These parental objects then become the bad parent in our eyes and are hated. However, as long as the focus is on the partner and the transference is being acted out (as in all co-dependent relationships), we can continue to blame others, looking outside ourselves, rather than dealing with the painful feelings from childhood. Painful as it may be to continue this process over and over, it feels less painful than confronting the fact that we will never get what we didn’t get as children. With this realization will come feelings of loss and mourning, which are a necessary part of the process of growing up (the therapeutic process).
Here is an example of how anger and blame can be used to keep a person from exposing the underlying cause of his/her pain. Sue is angry at her mate for ignoring her needs, even though she felt like she had made them clear. Although a practical issue may need to be dealt with, Sue realizes her anger is out of proportion to the situation. She stays with the anger and tries to understand it, which leads to feeling like her needs were ignored or attacked as a child. Sue’s anger now is directed toward her parents, but as she stays with this, her anger changes to the neediness and wanting she felt as a little girl and the desire just to be seen — to have her feelings and needs be recognized. Sue begins to feel a kind of presence and fullness as she is able to recognize those feelings for herself. This is a big step in separation because Sue is no longer attached to Mommy and Daddy for need fulfillment. As soon as she feels this separation, she feels the loss of her parents and the fear of aloneness. To be separate and alone as a child meant death. As an adult it means a kind of symbolic death – death of all the object relations, transferences and acting out behaviors that feel so safe and familiar to us and which ultimately keep us from growing up. Some call it ego death. Only when we can let go of our parents can we become fully functioning adults – adults who can see reality and not a skewered picture of reality. As adults we need to learn to provide the mirroring and support we didn’t get as children for ourselves now. In order to do this we must re-experience the pain of not getting what we needed in the first place. From the process of allowing ourselves to go into these painful feelings, self support will emerge – it must be present for the very process of allowing to occur.
As a therapist it is important to provide support for clients’ feelings – of rage, anger, hurt, helplessness, etc., without encouraging them to act these feelings out; which is really a way to dissipate the feelings and the tension that goes with them. (For clients with little ego strength, their egos and sense of self must be reinforced before they can tolerate doing this kind of regressive work on themselves.) Encouraging clients to look at the origin of the feelings increases self understanding and gives them more strength to not act out, but to see who they really hate, fear, and need.
Compassion is integral to the therapeutic process. The therapist’s compassion for the client will help the client to access their own compassion for themselves. This will allow them to go deeper into their painful feelings. They can use their newly found insight and increased compassion in their current situation to be easier on themselves and their loved ones. Judgementalness will decrease.
This is a good time to discuss the super-ego. Most everyone develops a super-ego, which was Freud’s term for the introjected parent. It usually includes both positive and negative judgments, values and rules. It is constantly monitoring and commenting on our behavior as well as our feelings – i.e.; “that was not very thoughtful”, or “it’s not nice to think such thoughts”, or “you sure are a good lover, mother, friend, cook, businessman or woman, …”, and so on. If the super-ego disapproves of our behavior, we feel bad. If the super-ego approves of our behavior, we feel good. We are always pleasing, pacifying or rebelling against the super-ego. No matter which reaction we use, we are still being controlled by this internalized and critical parent in our minds. We live in conflict between our real needs and our parents’ demands upon us. We are not free. We need both compassion and strength to allow our true feelings to emerge, however objectionable this may be to our super-ego.
Clients will need help in both identifying and then defending against this internalized set of injunctions. Over time, clients will become more adept at this process and able to ward off super-ego “attacks” so that they are free to allow any thoughts or feelings to emerge without acting out. This is not an easy process and it, again, involves separation in a very concrete way from one’s parents. When true separation occurs, loss and mourning again arise as the client leaves behind not only the negative and restrictive ties of his/her childhood, but the positive and loving ties as well. She/he is no longer tied to the past in any way, but is free to experience the present as it unfolds. An important point to make here is that this work is not to blame parents, who usually did the best they could do; but to gain understanding and ultimately freedom, emancipation and adulthood.
One important role of the therapist is to recognize, support and reflect back the client’s true strengths and qualities as they arise – i.e.; will, strength, power, compassion, love, serenity, joy, peace, presence, etc. Since little recognition may have been given to these qualities when a child, it may be difficult for the client to recognize them now without help from the therapist. Obviously, the therapist must have done enough work on him or herself in order to manifest these qualities as well. For every true strength there is a false correlate – i.e.; false will, false strength, and so on. These imposters are a person’s attempts to cover over their feelings of deficiency and lack of the true quality. Again, it is only by allowing oneself to experience one’s feelings of weakness or vulnerability, for example, that true strength can emerge.
One of the most difficult things we can do is let go of the old patterns and defenses we have used since childhood to try to get parental love and that we now consider to be a part of our functioning (our personality). We believe everyone will relate to us now as our parents did. Anytime we say or think to ourselves, “I am a person who … can’t socialize … is always dependable … is never late … never tells a lie … is too shy … would never think of doing so and so … has to have order and cleanliness at all times …”, etc., we are limiting ourselves in the present because of the past. We believe that if we give up these “traits” or patterns we will be unlovable and unloved, just as we felt as children. For example, if the only way you felt you could get love, recognition and approval from your parents as a child was to “give to get”, you will continue this behavior into the present, thinking that everyone wants this from you and will reject you otherwise. Even if they do want this from you and reject you otherwise, you are no longer the helpless, dependent child you once were. Current rejections may bring up (and probably will) the devastation you felt as a child, but as you stay with your feelings you may begin to experience your own capacity – a capacity to feel rejection without it meaning you are bad or helpless or unable to survive. Otherwise you may avoid your feelings by continuing to transfer your parents onto the world in general. The irony is that to continue this behavior is a constant rejection of yourself and your own feelings, wants and needs; which can only lead to anger, pain and alienation – alienation from your very being. Many people who come into therapy feel disconnected from themselves and want to find themselves. Now we understand why they feel so disconnected – they are disconnected and alienated from who they really are.
The process of growing up, rediscovering and developing our “baby” capacities, is deep work. It takes time and a strong commitment. It is not for everyone. However, even those who choose shorter term work on themselves can benefit and grow from this perspective. Just learning to identify and defend against the super-ego will create more space and openness in a person’s life – space from the constant “chatter” of the super-ego and openness to experience a full spectrum of emotions, including the feelings that were previously cut off and pushed into the unconscious.