Driven by Our Own Internal Patterns
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Cherril Wilson-Toft MBACP (Accred), MA (Counselling), PG Cert. Supervision
11th February, 2013
Sometimes we can feel unheard or dismissed in our personal life or at work; as if no one understands or cares. While we can understand how neglect or abuse in early childhood can articulate feelings of anger or rage or a sense of loss in later life, we can often be less aware of how these feelings inform our reactions within relationships. Feeling of loss, parenting responses, anger and rage can all be related to our attachment style. Clinical evidence increasingly suggests that strong needs and emotions can be linked to early, sometimes forgotten childhood experiences, or as Allan Schore, a leading figure in neuropsychoanalysis says: “unremembered but not forgotten”.
We all, at times, experience intense feelings of loss. Sometimes the reason is clear such as the loss of a relationship but at other times it can be less tangible, as in loss of confidence or even a loss of sense of ease of who we are. This can be activated by an actual event or we can feel confused because we feel unsure of why we feel the way we do.
Within a close adult relationship, we may expect the other to notice how we are feeling and soothe us; or we may expect the other to keep us safe and take responsibility for our life together. There are many ways we can feel, but sometimes these can be unconscious expectations rather than an assessment what our partner is able to do. Unconscious attachment patterns influence both our choice of partner as well as our expectations from our partner. This may manifest itself, perhaps, as a desire to be "made complete" in some way; or perhaps have our unmet need met.
A loss or lack of care that we may have experienced in adolescence can, in turn, make giving parental support to our own adolescent children all the more difficult. When, as a parent, we are in the adult role and facing “difficult” behaviour from the emerging adolescent, our own arousal system can kick in and we may react before we think. This can sometimes get in the way of our being able to respond as an adult to childish behaviour. Research suggests that if our children, when becoming adult and coping with unknown change, experience anxiety and emotional insecurity from their parents; this, in turn, may influence their own attachment pattern when they begin to form more lasting relationships. Sue Gerhardt writes: “Early emotion is very much about pushing people away or drawing them closer” (2004), and it is this formation of early emotions that is usually not remembered that is the unconscious drive within our attachment responses.
The expression of anger is an everyday feeling, but sometimes we cannot always distinguish between our rage and our anger. Sue Parker-Hall has extensively researched this and she believes that anger can stem from a deep lack of trust that our needs will be met, or that an explosive reaction is the only possible response. Both of these responses can be linked to our early formative experience and attachment patterns. Margaret Landale, who has done some very significant work on how emotions are held in the body, says: “Persistent problems tend to be driven by strong emotions.” Our arousal system is there to protect us but, if a high level of arousal is activated, anger or depression can be a possible response. Studies of the brain that look at the function of the amygdala and hypothalamus confirm how feelings can be, often unconsciously, stored and held in the body. Margaret Landale suggests that these somatic emotions can typically translate into patterns of chromic stress.
Winnicott and Bowlby are two seminal figures who worked with children and observed the parent- child interaction and laid the foundations for a good understanding of the attachment process.
Bowlby and allied workers in the field of attachment emphasised the place of trust and recognition of the client’s early experience of being cared for. Bowlby’s work helped to give rise to the therapist being on “the patients’ side” in what therapist’s call the ‘reparative relationship.’ This is when the counsellor and client are working together to form a mutual trusting relationship, characterised by safe exploration. In this the very nature of that relationship can be healing i.e. therapy giving an experience that repairs some of the damage of the experience in early years.
Winnicott made links between childhood experience and the treatment process, how the client‘s experiences can be ‘held’; that is honouring and containing all the very difficult feelings and emotions that may be being expressed. This can be part of what is happening in therapy when counsellors are making themselves emotionally available to clients.
Counselling or therapy can offer support to share and support to make changes. It is well understand that making a change is more likely to be effective when we are kindly supported. What is less commonly recognised is how simply telling our story in the presence of a caring and supportive other can be very healing. Equally, counselling can be diagnostic and work with what is felt and held in the body as a way of getting in touch with the arousal system – fight/flight – so that we engage with our body to tell us what is going on and begin to make choices as to how we would like to respond.
Working within the attachment framework, developed by the work of Bowlby and Winnicott and others – holding, being alongside – these elements of the reparative relationship can help the client begin to experience a different kind of relationship. A relationship that values, supports and is able to hold difficult experiences and feelings.
This is a small beginning towards telling how a good counselling relationship can make our attachment patterns explicit and how we can then work with them.
Sue Gerhardt: (2004) “Why Love Matters: how affection shapes the baby’s brain”.
Sue Parker-Hall: (2012) “Anger, Rage and Relationship” workshop
Margaret Landale (2007) “Effective Techniques for Working with Somatisation – Anxiety and Unresolved Emotional Conflict”: workshops.
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