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Monday, July 6, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers

Prior to coming to therapy, most people, who have underlying emotional trauma, are unaware of the emotional triggers that can cause them to react to what is going on now as if they were living in the past (see my article:  Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Past and Overcoming Trauma: When the Past is in the Present).

Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers 

When your brain is reacting automatically to something happening in the present as if you were back in the past, it can be very confusing, especially if you're not in therapy.

You might not understand what's happening to you.  You might not even be aware that your reaction is based on the past and not in the present.

Developing an Awareness of Your Emotional Triggers in Therapy
Often, people come to therapy to deal with difficult situations in the present, but they don't realize, at first, that the situation is triggering their past.  They just know that they're having a difficult time in a particular situation, which could be in their personal life or at work.

Sometimes, they're aware that their reaction to a particular situation is out of proportion to what's going on now, which is usually a sign that there is an earlier incident (or incidents) that is triggering the current emotional response.

Other people might be completely unaware of the earlier incidents and they deal with the current situation at face value.

A therapist, who is trained to listen for underlying trauma, can often detect the signs of earlier trauma and would broach this with the client.

Even if the therapist isn't sure if there is earlier trauma, there are ways in therapy to discover whether there is an earlier trauma and if that trauma is what's being emotionally triggered in the current situation (see my article:  Bridging Back to Discover Old Emotional Wounds).

If there is an earlier incident (or incidents) that is getting emotional triggered, working on the incident from the past often helps to alleviate the symptoms that are getting triggered in the current situation.

Usually, a trauma therapist will work on the past, the present as well as the anticipated future as it relates to the presenting problem.

A vignette, which is a composite of many different cases to protect confidentiality, will help to illustrate these points:

Greg came to therapy because he was having problems at work with his boss, Harry.

Everyone on staff agreed that Harry was difficult to work with, but Greg was having a particularly difficult time, and he often found himself enraged and frustrated with Harry to the point where he was afraid that he would lose his temper and say or do something that would get him fired.

Emotional Triggers:  Staff Meeting With Harry Criticizing Greg

Most people would have problems dealing with a boss like Harry because he was critical and overbearing.  But Greg allowed Harry to really get under his skin.

Whereas other employees looked for the first opportunity to leave the department to get away from Harry, Greg was determined to stay, even though he had better offers.  He was determined to prove to Harry that Harry was "wrong."  Greg was focused on being vindicated.

At that point, Greg couldn't see that he was overly invested in this situation, but his wife, Alice, knew that Greg was overreacting to Harry and she knew that there was something more going on for Greg.

Since Greg was unable to let go of his preoccupation with Harry even on his down time, Alice felt that it was affecting their relationship.  She was the one who recommended that Greg get help in therapy.

Greg's Wife Knew That Greg Was Overreacting and Recommended that He Get Help in Therapy
During his initial consultation, Greg said he wanted to learn stress management techniques to deal with his situation at work.  He recognized that he was under a lot of stress, but he was too immersed in the situation to see that he was overreacting.

He talked about wanting to "prove" to Harry that his criticism of Greg was "wrong."  He was determined to do whatever he had to do to "show Harry" that he was one of the best employees on staff.

Coping With Trauma:  Become Aware of Emotional Triggers:  A Difficult Boss as a Trigger

Even though Greg knew that he was highly regarded by his coworkers, Harry's superiors, and people outside the company in the same industry, Greg maintained a single-minded focus on vindicating himself with Harry.

Greg lacked perspective of how overly invested he was in trying to change someone who clearly wasn't going to change.

My experience as a therapist working with many similar problems is that people often develop limited perspective with only talk therapy when they are so dug into a situation like this.

Talking about the situation would engage Greg's logical mind, but it would have a limited impact on his emotional mind.

Rather than talk therapy, we needed to use experiential therapy (see my article:  Experiential Therapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

So, in order to determine if the current situation was triggering an earlier situation, we used the bridge back which is often used in clinical hypnosis and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing).

I asked Greg to close his eyes and think of a recent memory where he reacted to Harry in the way that he was describing to me.

When Greg said he had a memory in mind, I asked him to notice what emotions came up and where he felt them in his body.  He responded by telling me that he felt anger and frustration and he felt it in his throat and stomach.

Then, I asked Greg to use the emotions that he felt and the awareness of where he felt them in his body and see what earlier memories came up (see my article:  Mind-Body Psychotherapy: The Body Offers a Window Into the Unconscious Mind).

I told him that he was looking for possible earlier memories where he had the same reaction but, with regard to content of these memories, these older memories didn't have to be the same type of memory.  I asked him to just allow whatever came up to come up without judging or censoring it.

To his surprise, Greg remembered several memories, going back to his childhood with his father.

Greg described his father was being critical and overbearing, like Harry.  His father treated him as if he couldn't do anything right--also similar to Harry.

He remembered feeling angry and frustrated whenever his father criticized him.  He also felt like he always wanted to "show" his father that he was "wrong" and this was his most fervent wish as a child.

Over time, as we continued to work on these earliest memories, Greg became aware that underneath his anger and frustration, he also felt a lot of sadness (see my article: Discovering That Sadness is Often Hidden Underneath Your Anger).

He grieved for what he felt he didn't get emotionally as a child from his father.

Gradually, as we worked through these earlier traumatic memories, Greg became less invested in remaining in his struggle with Harry because Harry became less and less important to him on an emotional level.

We also worked on what Greg wanted for the future (see my article:  Experiencing Your Future Self: The Self You Want to Become).

Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers

After a few months, Greg accepted another job where he was in charge with a much higher salary and a healthier work environment.  He was much happier.

Greg's childhood memories lost their negative emotional charge, so he was also able to forgive his father, who had mellowed over the years and was no longer the critical father that he had been when Greg was a child.

Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers

Greg and his wife were also happier together since he was more emotionally available to her when he was at home.

Often, when you're immersed in a situation where you're experiencing a lot of emotion, it can be hard to be objective.

People who are close to you, like a spouse or close friend or relative, might recognize that there seems to be more going on for you than what's happening in the current situation.

Although loved ones can be emotionally supportive, they can't help you to discover if there are unconscious underlying issues that might be getting triggered for you, and they can't help you to work through those issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
Experiential therapy, like EMDR, clinical hypnosis and Somatic Experiencing, can help to make the unconscious conscious in ways that you can't do on your own (see my article:  Psychotherapy: Making the Unconscious Conscious).

If you're struggling with emotional problems that you've been unable to resolve on your own, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who uses experiential therapy.

Freeing yourself from the emotional burdens of the past might be one of the best things that you do for yourself because it will allow you to live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Falling In Love and Fear of Emotional Vulnerability

To fall in love, you have to allow yourself to be emotionally vulnerable.  And, yet, even though so many people want love in their lives, they're too afraid to allow themselves to open up to allow themselves to be vulnerable so they can experience the love that they desire.

Falling In Love and Fear of Emotional Vulnerability

Why Is Emotional Vulnerability So Scary?
Many people are afraid to allow themselves to be emotional vulnerable because they're afraid of getting hurt, especially if they've fallen in love before, they felt abandoned, and they got hurt (see my article:  Overcoming Fear of Abandonment).

Fear of rejection is also a factor.  People fear opening themselves up and then being rejected.  

It's not unusual for people who are afraid of getting hurt to shut down emotionally rather than allow themselves to be emotionally vulnerable.

It's a dilemma that's not easy for people to overcome on their own because they're stuck between two difficult choices:  Allowing themselves to open up to love vs. shutting down and remaining alone and lonely (see my article:  An Emotional Dilemma: Wanting and Dreading Love).

Fear of Emotional Vulnerability:  Some People Vacillate Between Opening Up and Shutting Down

In a prior blog article, Fear of Being Emotionally Vulnerable, I give a scenario that describes this dilemma.

Some people are more sensitive to the possibility of rejection than others.

Many people vacillate between these two choices.  Some people spend their whole lives going back and forth without ever resolving this dilemma for themselves.

The Courage to Be Emotionally Vulnerable
There is no way to have a successful relationship without allowing yourself to be emotionally vulnerable.

It takes a lot of courage, especially after you've been hurt before, to allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to falling in love again (see my article:  Developing the Courage to Change).

There are no guarantees that you won't get hurt again.  But if you don't allow yourself to be vulnerable, you are guaranteed to be alone.

Emotional Vulnerability and a History of Emotional Trauma
People who have a history of emotional trauma, especially trauma that goes back to childhood, have the hardest time allowing themselves to be emotionally vulnerable.

People who haven't experienced healthy relationships as a child have no personal models to draw on when it comes to choosing and developing a healthy relationship.  So, they end up bonding with others in unhealthy ways.

As a result, they often get into one unhealthy relationship after another which, unfortunately, confirms a feeling that they have that there are no healthy relationships to be had (see my article:  Falling In Love With Mr. Wrong Over and Over Again).

If they never get help to overcome their earlier emotional trauma and their misconceptions about relationships, after many failed attempts, they might opt to remain alone.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you recognize the dynamics that I describe in this article, you're not alone.

Rather than allowing your history of trauma to have a negative effect on you for the rest of your life, you could get help to overcome your fears by seeing a licensed mental health professional who specializes in working with trauma (see my article:  How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Free Yourself of Your History in Therapy: Overcome Your Fear of Being Emotionally Vulnerable 

Once you're free from your history, you'll be free to allow yourself to be emotionally vulnerable in a healthy romantic relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Getting Out of a Rut - Part 2: Taking Steps

In my prior article, I began the discussion about getting out of a rut by defining what it is and what it's not as well as some of the common reasons why people get into ruts in their lives.

Taking Steps to Get Out of a Rut

In this article, I'm focusing on some tips that might be helpful to get out of a rut (see my article: Recapturing a Sense of Aliveness).

Since everyone is different, you might find some of these tips more helpful than others and, as I mentioned in my prior article, what might appear like being in a rut might actually be a more serious psychological problem that requires professional help.

For now, let's focus on some of the things that you might be able to do to get yourself out of a rut so you have more of a sense of well-being in your life.

Since many people are afraid that it would take too big an effort to make this kind of change, you can start by looking at one or two areas where you can begin to make small changes that feel do-able.

Tips for Getting Out of a Rut:
  • Looking at Your Usual Routines:  Is there some small change that you can make to one of your usual routines?  So, for instance, if you always take the same route to work, what if you took a different route?  What might you see or who might you meet that might be new and different? (see my article:  Being Open to New Experiences).
  • Revising Your To-Do List:  If you find that your to-do list is usually so long that you almost never complete it, why not consider revising it so that it's more manageable?  At the same time, you can include some self care items on your list to nurturing yourself.  
  • Reflecting on Your Habitual Ways of Thinking:  This requires self reflection and, possibly, some help from a trust friend or relative, who might be helpful to see things about yourself that you might not see. When was the last time that you questioned certain feelings, opinions and values?  Are you able to stand back objectively and consider that you might be thinking and behaving in ways that no longer suit you and your loved ones?  Reflecting on your habitual ways of thinking might help you to see things from a different angle.  Or, after looking at things from a different angle, you might still feel the same.  It's the act of reflection and objectivity that's important.  Maybe you want to try challenging yourself by looking at TV news that you normally don't watch, so that if you normally watch a liberal news broadcast, try watching a more conservative one or vice versa (see my article:  Overcoming the "I'm Too Old to Change" Mindset).
Taking Steps to Get Out of a Rut
  • Looking at Your Fear of Change:  Take time to question your fears.  Are your fears amorphous and vague or are they specific?  Are you afraid of specific changes or any type of change?  Take time to write about your fears and, in writing about them, do they stand up to the light of day or do you see certain distortions in your thinking that underlie your fears? (see my article:  Fear of Change).
  • Bolstering Your Self Confidence:  Are you going through a period of self doubt because of recent circumstances or is your lack of self confidence a lifelong issue?  Were there other times in your life when you were afraid to make changes but you overcame your fears?  What enabled you do it?  If you can't draw from your own experience, are there people that you admire who have been able to get themselves out of their own ruts?  Are there things that they did that you can borrow that might help to bolster your self confidence.  If there isn't anyone that you know, use your imagination and think of someone that you admire from a TV program, a movie, a book or a historical figure.  How did he or she overcome a lack of self confidence to lead a more fulfilling life? (see my article:  Becoming the Person You Want to Be).
  • Looking at the Impact of "Negative People" Around You:  For reasons of their own, many people who struggle with negative thoughts, often unwittingly, have a negative impact on the people around them.  Often these people, who might be depressed or have other psychological problems that they're unaware of, can dampen other people's enthusiasm for new plans or changes in their lives.  This doesn't mean that you should stop being emotionally supportive to friends or family members who are "down."  It does mean that it would be helpful for you to take a look at the impact that they might have on you and learn to distinguish between their unhappiness and how you feel.  In other words, distinguish what emotions belong to them and what belongs to you.  If there are acquaintances in your life who tend to discourage you, you might want to reduce the amount of time that you spend with them, especially if you're trying to get out of a rut yourself (see my article:  Workplace: Being Around Negative Coworkers Can Have a Negative Impact on Your Mood).
  • Meeting New People:  If you have a set of friends that you really care about, that's great.  You might also consider getting out to meet new people that might help you to gain a new perspective, learn about new interests, and see new places.  
  • Recognizing that Everyday is a New Day:  Your perspective about each day is very important.  If you look at each day as the same as the previous one, you're unlikely to get yourself out of a rut.  But if you look at each day as having the potential for new possibilities, you open yourself up to the possibility of new experiences.

Taking Steps to Get Out of a Rut

What If It's More Than Just Being in a Rut?
As I mentioned in my prior article, sometimes depression and anxiety, as well as other psychological problems, can be the underlying problems for being in a rut.

If you've tried own your own and you've been unsuccessful to try to get yourself on a more even keel, you could benefit from the help of a licensed mental health professional.

Getting Help in Therapy
Going for a consultation with a licensed therapist could help you to address the underlying issues that keep you feeling stuck (see my article:

Rather than continuing to suffer on your own, a licensed mental health professional can help you to overcome the obstacles that are keeping you from leading a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Psychotherpy Blog: Getting Out of a Rut - Part 1

At some point in their lives, most people have the experience of being in a rut.

Getting Out of a Rut

What Does Being in a Rut Mean?
What being in a rut means is different for each person.

For most people, it's the experience of feeling stuck in one or more areas of their lives and not knowing what to do to get out of the rut that they're in.

For others, it's an inexplicable feeling of being bored and, possibly not knowing why.

Since being in a rut is such a vague expression and it can mean different things to different people, let's start by saying, for the purposes of what I mean in this article, what it isn't.

Being in a rut isn't being:
  • in a state of major depression
  • in a depressive phase of bipolar disorder
  • emotionally traumatized
  • in a state of grief or mourning
  • obsessing due to obsessive compulsive disorder
and so on.

While the psychological conditions that I've mentioned above, as well as other psychological conditions, might have elements that appear similar to being in a rut, these conditions are psychological states that require the assistance of a mental health professional.

As opposed to a serious psychological condition, what I'm addressing in this article has more to do with a feeling of stagnation that many people can pull themselves out of if it's not part of a more serious psychological problem.

Being in a rut can happen so easily because, more than ever, most people feel pressed for time.  They're  busy trying to juggle so many responsibilities and struggling to balance their family life and work.

Being Over Scheduled is Often the Cause of Getting Into a Rut with Too Many Routines

Being in a rut often feels like you're a hamster on a wheel just running in place and not getting anywhere.

Being in a Rut Can Feel Like Being Stuck on a Hamster Wheel

Some Common Reasons for Getting Into a Rut:
  • Getting stuck in old routines
  • Having too big a to-do list
  • Getting stuck in habitual ways of thinking
  • Allowing fear of change to get in the way
  • Lacking self confidence
  • Neglecting to plan for change
  • Over planning the same routines
  • Suffering with burnout
  • Lacking motivation
  • Avoiding new experiences
  • Allowing too many routines to crowd out time for self care
  • Associating only with the same people and not making an effort to meet new people
  • Allowing other people's negativity to have too big an influence
  • Thinking it will take an overwhelming effort to get out of the rut

In my next article, I'll suggest some ideas that can be helpful to get yourself out of a rut.

Getting Help in Therapy
As I mentioned earlier, it's important to be able to distinguish being in a rut from a psychological issue to be addressed with a licensed mental health professional.

Getting Help in Therapy

If you've tried to overcome your problem on your own without success or you feel your problems involve more than just a temporary feeling of stagnation, you could benefit from working with a licensed psychotherapist (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Creating Personal Rituals as Part of Your Emotional Healing Process

In a prior article,  The Power of Creating Personal Rituals, I discussed creating personal rituals and how meaningful rituals can be to enhance a sense of well being.  In this article, I'm focusing specifically on creating rituals for emotional healing.

Creating Personal Rituals as Part of Your Emotional Healing Process

What is a Ritual?
In the most general terms, life is full of rituals.

Every culture has rituals.  Rituals are usually associated with meaningful religious or cultural observances where there is a ceremonial act or a series of acts that are performed in a certain way. It can be at certain times of the day, month, year or certain seasons.

The acts or words of the ritual are often done in a certain repeated way.  There might be certain places associated with the ritual and particular garments that are worn.

Rituals can be done in groups, as when people from a religious group join together to observe a holiday, or rituals can be a solo observance.

Meaningful rituals usually have a mindful quality to them.

Rituals mark transitions from:
  • Childhood to adulthood
  • Uninitiated to initiated
  • Single to being married
  • Life to death
  • One season to another
  • One state of mind to another
and so on

Most children learn about rituals from a young age.

Children Learn About Rituals at a Young Age:  Bedtime Stories

So, for instance, when I was a young child, my mother would read a book to me before I went to sleep, which is a common ritual that parents have for helping children to transition from day to night and from being awake to relaxing into sleep.  It's also a bonding experience between parent and child.

Artists and writers are often known to have certain rituals (or habits) that they engage in before they write.  It can help them to be more disciplined about doing their work as well as helping them to transition from their everyday thoughts and feelings to their more creative inner world.

You don't have to be a spiritual person or an artist to create a ritual.  In fact, many rituals that people engage in everyday aren't spiritual at all.  Think of your morning ritual, which most people have.  It's easier to transition from sleeping to being awake if you have somewhat of a ritual.

Creating Personal Rituals as Part of Your Emotional Healing Process

Your morning ritual might begin by making coffee or tea, feeling the warmth of the cup, smelling the aroma, and enjoying the first taste as you begin your day.  You might enjoy a few moments before the rest of the family gets up.  Maybe you look out the window and see the sun rising.

Creating Personal Rituals as Part of Your Healing Process

Rituals also don't have to be rigid or dogmatic.  As a matter of fact, it's better if they're not because then they can lose part of what's comforting and meaningful about having a ritual.

Why Are Rituals So Powerful?
Rituals create a bridge between your conscious and unconscious mind.  They appeal to the right side of your brain which is associated with creativity and emotions.  In that sense, a ritual can be emotionally transformative.

Creating Personal Rituals as Part of Your Healing Process

The intention, preparation and structure of the ritual as well as anything that is meaningful to you that you use to create a ritual often creates a transcendent quality that goes beyond you and your everyday concerns.

A ritual, whether done in a group or alone, can also be centering and grounding.  It can help you to relax you and clarify your thoughts and intentions.

In an earlier article, I discussed how setting an intention each day can be powerful (see my article:  Starting the Day With an Intention).

In another article about dream incubation, I discussed how you can set an intention for your dreams (see my article:  Dream Incubation: Planting Seeds), which came out of a dream intensive workshop that I attended with Jungian analyst, Robert Bosnak, who wrote the book, Embodied Imagination.

Dream Incubation as Ritual

Whether you set an intention for an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year or for the rest of your life, just the act of setting an intention is meaningful and helps you to focus on what's important to you.

The repetitiveness of a ritual can also be trance-like so that each time you do a ritual, you enter into a certain internal state, both physically and mentally, that is part of the ritual intention.

Why Create an Emotional Healing Ritual?
There are many ways to heal emotionally:
  • Talking to friends and loved ones
  • Healing in psychotherapy
  • Writing in a personal journal
  • Listening to music
  • Visiting places that are meaningful to you

and so on

In addition to these other ways of healing, creating a personal healing ritual is empowering because you're creating it yourself in ways that will be healing for you.

A ritual can be as elaborate or as simple as you like.

Creating a ritual is only limited by your imagination.

A ritual can be as simple as doing a particular meditation each day at a certain time.

Meditation as Part of Emotional Healing Ritual

There is a simple meditation that I learned from Nancy Napier, a psychotherapist in NYC, who taught my first year of Somatic Experiencing.

When it was time to begin the class, she would have us get quiet and centered in our bodies.  This settling down and focusing on our internal experience was a transition from whatever we were doing before to being present in a meaningful way in that moment.

After a few moments, she asked us, in a quiet and soft voice, to feel ourselves connecting with all the healers in the city.  Then, gradually she expanded it to include all the healers in the country, and then all the healers in the world.

After this short meditation, the feeling in the room changed.  Everyone looked more relaxed and open to learning.

I often use this meditation at the end of psychotherapy sessions with clients who like it because it's so grounding and centering.  It's especially helpful if we've been working on trauma.  After this meditation, even if trauma work was difficult, clients usually leave the session feeling relaxed.

This is a simple enough meditation that anyone can use it on his or her own.

If you prefer more elaborate rituals, you can use candles, artwork, pictures, poetry, movement, flowers, statues, inspirational sayings, and "props" to help engage your inner world.

Creating Personal Rituals as Part of Your Emotional Healing Process

Some people who have health problem set up a space in their homes where they place objects that are meaningful to whatever they're working on healing.  This space can be a corner of a credenza or it can be a table that is set aside only for this purpose.

Engaging and inspiring your inner world is what's most important in terms of creating a healing ritual.

Rituals don't need to be solemn.  Rituals can be a lot of fun.

You can use humor, if you like, which, in itself, can be healing.  Humor can help to lighten your mood, especially if you've been feeling weighed down by stress or illness.

When you're creating a healing ritual, the important thing is to make your own.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Healing the Mother-Daughter Relationship Where There Was Role Reversal

In my prior article,  Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships, I began discussing some of the dynamics related to role reversal in mother-daughter relationships, including the dynamic in the daughter's early childhood and the possible outcomes of the mother-daughter relationship when the daughter is an adult.

Healing the Mother-Daughter Relationship Where There Was Role Reversal

In this article, I've given a fictional vignette, which is made of many different cases of role reversal between mothers and daughters, about how it is possible to heal problematic mother-daughter relationships in mother-daughter therapy (see my article:  Healing Mother-Daughter Relationships).

Jane and Patty
Jane and Patty sought mother-daughter therapy because they were unable to reconcile their relationship on their own.

The daughter, Patty, had been in individual therapy with another therapist to deal with this issue, but she had a strong desire to be able to talk to her mother about their role reversal, especially during the time when Patty was a young child.

In the past, Patty said, whenever Patty attempted to talk to Jane, about it, Jane would dismiss Patty's concerns and change the subject.  Not only was this hurtful, Patty said, but it also left her feeling angry and frustrated.

Healing Mother-Daughter Relationships Where There Was Role Reversal

Even though neither of them would describe their current adult relationship in very negative terms, Jane felt that she was harboring a lot of unexpressed resentment towards Jane for her role as a parentified child when she was younger, cooking, cleaning, taking care of her younger siblings, and being Jane's confidante, especially when Jane was drunk.

During Patty's early childhood and teen years, Jane was an active alcoholic.  She would drink until she passed out leaving Patty and the younger children to fend for themselves.  Since Patty's father had left the household before Patty was born, there were no other adults at home to help.

Patty recalled that when she was six years old, Jane would get drunk and unburden her problems on Patty.

Patty recounted how sad she felt that her mother was so unhappy and she was willing to do whatever her mother wanted because she hoped this would make Jane happy.  But it never did.  And Patty grew up feeling like she failed her mother, which made her try even harder to please her mother and to work even harder at home.

When Patty was a teen, she said, she often had to help her mother walk up the stairs to her bedroom because Jane was too drunk to walk up the stairs by herself.  Then, Patty would put her mother to bed and take care of her younger siblings.

Patty recalled that she often felt lonely and overwhelmed as a child because she had no one to talk to about it.  She also missed out on a lot of social activities because she stayed home to take care of her mother and the other children.

Patty said she was so glad when her mother got sober when Patty was 18.  She was glad for Jane and glad for herself and her siblings.

Jane's sobriety allowed Patty to go to college without feeling guilty that she was leaving Jane and the children.

While Patty spoke, Jane kept her eyes cast down and sat stiffly in the chair.  It was evident that it took a lot for her to sit and listen to how emotionally damaging it was for Patty to function as the mom at home.

After Patty spoke, Jane said she wasn't sure what to say.  She said that she had apologized to Patty many times, but Patty didn't accept her apology.  As she said this, she appeared somewhat emotionally disconnected from their conversation.

Patty responded by saying that even though Jane apologized, Jane also told her that all of this happened a long time ago and Patty should "let it go."  Patty felt that Jane didn't know what Patty went through and she didn't want to know.

The first several sessions were intense and emotional with both mother and daughter becoming upset and angry at various times.

The breakthrough came in their sixth session together when Patty said that she didn't see how they could ever be close if Jane continued to say she was sorry and, at the same time, she was dismissive of Patty's feelings by telling her to "just let it go."

"Mom, if I could 'just let it go,' don't you think I would have done that a long time ago?" Patty said to her mother, "I'm beginning to feel hopeless that you and I could ever have a close relationship."

At that point, hearing her daughter's sense of hopelessness, Jane broke down.  It was the turning point in their therapy.  She said that the thought that they could never heal their relationship was unbearable to her.

Then, she began talking about her own childhood.  She wanted Patty to understand why she wasn't a good mother when Patty was a child.  Until then, Jane was never willing to talk to Patty about her childhood before.

Jane revealed that her mother, whom Patty had never met, was not only emotionally neglectful, she was also physically abusive.  When her mother was drunk, Jane said, she would bring home strange men and, after her mother passed out, they would sexually abuse Jane.

Since her mother would black out when she drank, she never remembered what happened and she didn't believe Jane when she tried to tell her that these men were sexually abusing her.

Jane said that this was the first time that she had ever revealed this to anyone, and she felt deeply ashamed about the sexual abuse and how she neglected Patty when she was a child.

Healing the Mother-Daughter Relationship Where There Was Role Reversal

At that point, Patty took her mother's hand to soothe her, and they sat silently for a few minutes.

Over the next several sessions, Jane and Patty continued to talk about their relationship.  Something shifted between them.  They seemed genuinely close.

Patty said that, for the first time in her life, she felt that her mother understood and she was glad that she wasn't dismissing her feelings.  She also said that, knowing her mother's history, she felt a deep sense of compassion towards her and forgave.

Jane said she felt closer to Patty than she had in a long time, and she wanted to continue developing their relationship.  She also said that she decided to begin her own individual therapy to deal with her traumatic history.

Trying to reconcile the emotional aftermath of a role reversal in a mother-daughter relationship can be challenging for both people.

The fictional vignette above is one variation on many themes between a mother and daughter trying to bring about a reconciliation.

Healing between a mother and daughter is possible if both people are willing.

If they can't accomplish this on their own, mother-daughter therapy is often helpful to heal old wounds.

Getting Help in Therapy
As people become better educated about psychotherapy, more mothers and daughters are participating in mother-daughter therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy

If you're stuck in a mother-daughter dynamic that you want to change, you could benefit from mother-daughter therapy with a licensed mental health professional who can facilitate the emotional healing.

Life is short and by healing your mother-daughter relationship, it's possible for you to have a healthier, more loving relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples, including mothers and adult daughters and fathers and adult sons.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, you can call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Psychotherapy Blog: Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships

In the past, I wrote several articles about mother-daughter relationships, including:  Healing Mother-Daughter RelationshipsLife Stages in Mother-Daughter Relationships and Mother-Daughter Relationships Over the Course of a Lifetime).

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships

In this article, I'm focusing on role reversal between mothers and daughters, including the dynamics when the daughter is a young child as well as the effect on their relationship later on when the daughter is an adult.

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships: Early Childhood
When there is a role reversal dynamic in a mother-daughter relationship, the young daughter usually takes on the role of the mother in terms of mothering the mother (and other family members) by becoming the helper, confidante, and caretaker of the mother.

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships: Early Childhood

It's not unusual in this dynamic for the daughter to take on adult responsibilities at a young age such as cooking, cleaning, taking care of the other children in the household, listening to the mother's problems, and trying to solve the mother's problems.

In some highly dysfunctional families, it might also involve the daughter taking on the role of the sex partner to the father, sometimes with the mother's knowledge and sometimes without.

Why Does a Mother "Allow" Her Daughter to Take On the Mothering Role?
Mothers who are part of this dynamic often have their own unmet emotional childhood needs from when they were growing up, possibly in a similar dynamic with their own mother.

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships: Early Childhood

Growing up with unmet emotional needs makes it more likely that mothers will unconsciously seek the nurturing that they didn't receive from their own mothers from their young daughters.

Aside from having unmet emotional needs, the mother might also have other problems, including:
  • Being incapacitated by depression
  • Lacking parenting skills
  • Getting pregnant at a very young age and lacking the maturity to take care of her daughter 
  • Having unwanted pregnancies
  • Being physically sick
  • Being overwhelmed by too many other responsibilities
  • Abusing alcohol or drugs, engaging in compulsive gambling or other impulsive/compulsive behavior
  • Being in an abusive relationship with the father (or another man) 
  • Having a succession of men in and out of her life with each one becoming the focus on her attention rather than her daughter
and so on.

Often this dynamic is perpetuated from one generation to the next without the mothers or daughters even realizing it, unless they get help in therapy.

Young daughters who take on the mother role are usually emotionally overwhelmed because they are behaving in ways that are beyond their developmental capacity.

Not only are their own emotional needs not being met because they're being emotionally neglected, but they are overexerting themselves mentally, emotionally and physically, often without any emotional support.

If they're also taking on the role as the father's sex partner, this is, obviously, extremely damaging and exacerbates the emotional trauma.

Often the mother in the role reversal dynamic, without realizing it, lacks empathy for the daughter.

The mother might lack empathy because she hasn't dealt with her own history of being in a role reversal with her mother.

This is a complicated dynamic and, as illogical as it might seem, this doesn't mean necessarily that the mother in this situation doesn't love the daughter.

The lack of empathy usually means that the mother is unable or unwilling to see the damage being done, despite the love she might feel for the daughter, because she doesn't know how to be nurturing and her own unfulfilled emotional needs are so great.

The mother also might not know how to express love to her daughter because her own mother never expressed it to her.

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships:  The Adult Relationship Between the Mother and Daughter:  Possibilities for Healing
It's not unusual that later on in life, when the mother is older and the daughter becomes an adult, for there to be tension between the mother and daughter.

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships: The Adult Relationship Between Mother and Daughter

If the mother is now better able to be loving towards her adult daughter because she has matured and developed more emotionally, there is the possibility for healing their relationship, even if the mother has a lot of shame about the role reversal and the daughter is resentful.

A lot will depend upon the particular mother and daughter.

Some mothers and daughters continue to have an ambivalent, codependent relationship as adults (see my article:  Ambivalence and Codependency in Mother-Daughter Relationships).

Some adult daughters have so much anger, resentment and bitterness towards the mother that they find it difficult to forgive her, even if the mother expresses remorse for their role reversal when the daughter was a child.

Other daughters might develop a kind of intellectual insight ("I know my mother did the best that she could") but, without help in therapy, they remain stuck emotionally and ambivalent in their conflict because even though they might have an intellectual understanding, they don't understand it on an emotional level.

Unfortunately, this is a common experience for many daughters in this situation.

Many daughters are aware that they paid the emotional price for the role reversal, and they're determined that they won't perpetuate this dynamic with their own children.  Many of them go on to have healthy relationships with their children.

But many of them, despite their best efforts, end up having dysfunctional relationships with their children.   They might overindulge their children (like giving them everything that the child wants because they didn't get what they needed when they were children).

They might over function for their children, doing things for their children that their children are capable of doing for themselves. Or they have some other emotional blind spot with regard to their children, especially their daughters.

Some mothers find it difficult to acknowledge the role reversal either because they're in denial about it, they're too ashamed to discuss it or they're dismissive of the pain it caused the daughter due to their lack of empathy ("That was a long time ago.  You should just let it go").

Role Reversal in Mother-Daughter Relationships: The Adult Relationship Between Mother and Daughter
Other mothers want to make a sincere effort to heal the relationship with their daughter, but they don't know how.  Or, their daughter, as an adult, might be unwilling.

There are many variations on this theme.

In a future article, I'll continue this discussion and give a fictional vignette to illustrate the points that I've discussed in this article.

Getting Help in Therapy
Overcoming the emotional consequences of role reversal in mother-daughter relationships can be challenging and, for some people impossible, to do on your own.

Many mothers and adult daughters have been helped by coming to mother-daughter therapy to overcome the problems between them.

With an objective mental health professional, who understands the dynamics involved with this type of role reversal, mothers and daughters often find that they are able to heal their relationship with each other.

Even in situations where one person, either the mother or the daughter, is unable or unwilling to come to therapy to work on this problem, many individuals have healed in individual therapy from the trauma of this dynamic.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples, including mothers and adult daughters and fathers and adult sons.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.