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Page Contents: When you find it hard to open up in psychotherapy.                    


I grew up with an emotionally unavailable mother. My father was very kind but was hardly around because of work. I am a 28 female and most of my life, and (as I now understand it) I secretly longed for and vigilantly sought after other women with whom I could find a maternal replacement. I’ve always felt guilty about this because I know that my mother did the best she knew how. And as I’m getting older, it seems like I should no longer have such infantile and needy issues, so I’m trying to be independent emotionally. Needless to say, I’ve never had an intimate relationship with anyone.
I’ve been in therapy for a 4 years now. And while it has been tremendously helpful in some areas, this intimacy issue is a constant struggle as I am unable to get into the really tough issues. I desperately want to, but every time I think about it, my anxiety builds up to the point where I feel paralyzed and can’t say anything, so I just don’t even bring it up; although my therapist is aware of the problems. But now it’s gotten to a point where I remain silent for long periods during the sessions, and I leave feeling like a failure for wasting both my and my therapist’s time. My therapist is very good in always asking for feedback on how I fared afterwards in the next session, and then we can continue discussing about the present incident. But after that, I clam up again and the whole thing starts over again.
I’m aware of the fact that feeling my emotions with another person is part of the process in therapy, and I recognize my avoidance in that. But there’s a big difference in understanding the process and going through it. Do you have any suggestions that can help me open up?

First of all, you might want to read the answer I gave to a previous question on this subject, in which I explain “opening up” in general.

Your question, however, touches on some important aspects of emotional openness in psychotherapy.

First, you say that you “should no longer have such infantile and needy issues.” Well, that’s a trap into which many clients fall. But the truth is, if emotional wounds from childhood are not spoken about and healed, they remain sealed in the unconscious like a time capsule and they will cause you problems no matter how old you are. It’s as if a frightened child still lives within you, despite the fact that you are now an adult. The task of psychotherapy is to give that “child” within you—that is, your emotional experiences—the attention and affirmation that you never received from your mother and father.

Moreover, speaking about your mother and father, your current problems do not stem just from your mother’s lack of emotional attention. A father plays a huge symbolic role in childhood development, and, when he is missing, all sorts of emotional and developmental deficits can occur in the child, not the least of which will be anger at the father for not protecting you from your mother, and consequently anger at all authority in general. Any psychotherapist must be aware of this hidden anger at the father because, if it is ignored, it will cause intense unconscious resistance to the psychotherapy itself. For example, when you “clam up” in psychotherapy you exhibit a resistance to doing the work, and this points to an unconscious anger at your father for his failing to help you when you needed help.

Finally, speaking about the psychotherapist, you also say that “my therapist is aware of the problems.” But it’s really the psychotherapist’s job to help you enter into emotional intimacy. Being “aware” isn’t enough. A psychotherapist has to notice precisely where you pull back and then make an interpretation to help you articulate your inner experiences.

You “clam up” because you’re facing some very unpleasant emotions, and your psychotherapist, like a good father, must have the creativity and confidence to help you raise these feelings into conscious language. So, if you “clam up” and your psychotherapist doesn’t help you do something about it, then he or she is not doing a proper job.

Granted, it can take a lot of training and experience to notice the subtle cues a client gives when avoiding emotions, so if your psychotherapist isn’t up to the job, you might want to find someone who’s better suited to help you. Of course, given your problems with intimacy, you probably feel a certain allegiance to your psychotherapy, even as it is failing you. Remember, that’s how you felt about your mother, right? Instead of speaking the truth about how she failed you, you reject your true feelings and make yourself feel guilty for having those feelings. Now it will be important, in order to put your past to rest and to free your future from inhibition, to desire the courage to face your unconscious truth.


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Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
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