Have you ever wondered why it sometimes seems so hard to lead a happier and healthier life? Or, wondered how it is that you tend to make the same choices in the same situations over and over again that keep you from getting what you want from life?
I recently came across a blog post by PsychCentral.com and INLP Center’s Mike Bundrant that asks this question. The author suggests that the reason we tend to get in our own way is because we have psychological attachments to certain kinds of negative feelings (e.g. feeling controlled, deprived, or rejected). He explains further that psychological attachments begin early in life, are repeated throughout life, that we are deeply conflicted by them, and that not only do we have little awareness of these attachments, we tend to unwittingly keep it that way. (Click here to see that blog in full.) Reading this particular post reminded me of four important concepts that I pay close attention to in psychotherapy.
The past is alive in the present.
Our past experiences, particularly those that occurred early in life with our parents and caregivers, inform who we are today. These experiences shape what we expect from other people and how we tend to behave in our relationships. Our past teaches us how we elicit caring and attention. We learn how to act when someone is angry with us and how to express ourselves when we are angry. We learn how to make people proud of us, what it feels like to succeed, what it feels like to fail, and what it means to love. From these experiences we develop deeply-rooted templates that we continue to apply to new situations throughout life for better or worse.
The complex and conflicted mind.
We humans tend to have complicated and conflicting thoughts and feelings. We can have both loving and hateful feelings towards others. We can wish for things that we also fear, and wish for things that seem completely opposite. These psychological conflicts often revolve around certain themes that have repeated throughout our lives, such as intimacy, anger, or control, and we become psychologically attached to them, as the author of the blog put it.
Unconscious mental life.
Many of our perceptions, judgments, feelings, motivations, and behaviors take place outside of our conscious awareness. Because of this, we do not fully know ourselves and our own minds. And it’s not just that there is a lot we do not know about what is deep down inside of us. It is also that there are things we seem to not want to know – those conflicting feelings mentioned above. With individual therapy, we explore our thoughts, feelings, and experiences to make unconscious mental life more known to us and we are able to know ourselves better.
Our defenses are the way that we keep ourselves from knowing that which we unconsciously prefer to avoid. We can do this by not noticing something, not thinking about something, or distracting ourselves in some way so that we keep ourselves from feeling something we do not want to feel. These defenses become reflexive and habitual and tend to repeat like patterns throughout our lives. They become our characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, acting, coping, and relating. We associate them with who we are. We become attached to them.
In therapy, we explore our emotional experiences and our pasts. This helps us to gain a better understanding of what keeps us from getting what we want from life, and empowers us to make new choices for ourselves. We make sense out of our present experience by understanding how it relates to our early experiences of engaging with others and ourselves. We bring to the forefront of our conscious minds that which has been largely unconscious. We get to know ourselves better as we come to understand our internal conflicts (i.e. psychological attachments) and how we characteristically avoid them to maintain the status quo, even when it causes us suffering. The aim of this process is to break our attachment to past experience so that we may have the freedom to create new life possibilities for the present.