Symptoms, nightmares, dreams or other confusing experiences often occur to us as something going wrong with us. We want to get over them, get away from or rid of them. But let us take a closer look. I once worked with a woman who complained of chronic emptiness, often with depression. We explored the emptiness together. It was interesting because as we explored the history of this feeling, she recalled a story of telling everyone about her experience of being visited by a beautiful butterfly, how it landed on her and she interacted with it for some time before it flew away. She was amazed and gleefully told everyone, but the feeling was not returned, in fact it was diminished. Although this was later determined to not have been an isolated event, but typical for her experience as a child, we explored how her experience was full of life, and anything but empty. It was full of life, enchantment and wonder! The "emptiness" was a response to what was so empty and devoid of celebrating her amazing experience. Apparently she had internalized this empty, callous, and devaluing response in the place of an appropriate one, of affirming her emerging identity and feeling good about sharing her experience. While this was uncomfortable, her feelings of emptiness were an accurate representation of her experience and clued us into what was needed was something different. Without this uncomfortable symptom to tell us ore about what was going on, we may not have made that discovery so readily. This was the beginning of many explorations and discoveries around her "experience" of emptiness. This inner experience of emptiness represented, among other things, the lack of response (and her inner experience of it) to her emerging sense of self. Her experience was full of life, but the reaction lacking. A rich inner life began to emerge where she once felt only a void, shut off from re-experiencing more pain that might emerge from having an experience of getting excited, only to be ignored and/or diminished. Her symptom of emptiness was an amazing clue for us in our work. Symptoms mean things.
Self-sufficiency can be very desirable. Its often regarded to be unattractive to be clingy, demanding in the modern world. But having a "stiff upper lip," "toughing it out," or to go further, not being able to rely on others might say something else. Attachment informs us about relationships early in life. Attachment is seeking protection and keeping close in response to threat or danger. It illustrates how our early reliance on a caretaker affects later relationships. We learn this as a child. Separate from normal independence, independence that is not as well-adjusted, can look more like some of these signs:
So you can see these behaviors do not sound (on the surface) like someone who feels traumatized. But these behaviors are frequently someone whose attachment process did not make them safe and drove them into self-sufficiency perhaps to a fault (at least when it comes to being able to be close). However, these behaviors often represent monumental defenses against trauma, and in the long run, typically result in symptoms, other complaints, physical problems, and/or relationship, job adjustment problems. Trauma would not be in the vocabulary. Trauma would be to admit something got to you/them. Being able to work with feelings that get activated in a relationship can help the individual tolerate more, be able to be closer, and struggle but feel stronger in relationships and in life.
steve harris, phd
View My Prior Blog:
"What Is Right With Me?"