Time to Run: The Power of the Amygdala
A member on the psychcafe forum, Closed Doors (CD), started a discussion about what dependency on your therapist means. In the course of the discussion, I ended up writing a formula for what happens when we want to run from our wish to move closer. With CD’s kind permission, I am going to reproduce it here.
She asked for examples of how other people have been dependent on their therapists. In discussing what dependence looks like, the conversation turned to the shame that can arise around recognizing that we have needs and how terribly vulnerable it is to express them. CD is returning to therapy after a long break, which she took because the feelings and need for her therapist were feeling too intense (Raise your hands if you have ever experienced this. Yes, yes, I see those hands. You can put ’em down now. :D)
She’s back in therapy and the feelings are coming back with a vengeance and so is all the pain and confusion about having those feelings. At one point she talked about how reluctant she was to return for her next session, saying that she felt like if she went back, then her therapist won that round. Since to my knowledge, her and her therapist are not actually competing for anything, this statement stood out for me.
Therapy, at its best and when it is working, is a collaborative effort, with the therapist offering insight and objectivity and the client offering honesty and vulnerability with both of them working towards a fuller life and healthier relationships for the client. I have found in my experience that when I am experiencing therapy as adversarial (ok, ok, HIGHLY adversarial), that is a sign some transference is kicking in. Or I am rationalizing an action I have already decided to take. The scenario unfolds as shown below (using CDs particular situation as an example). Admittedly, this is a fairly simplistic take on a complex and largely unconscious process, but I hope it might illuminate what it is we do.
1. Going back to therapy means moving closer.
2. Hamster amygdala checks prior experiences.
3. Hamster amygdala screams NO NO NO TOO DANGEROUS.
4. Frontal lobe does not want to look irrational and goes hunting for rationale.
5. Frontal lobe says “but if I go back, he wins and I don’t want to lose again, hence, I am not going back!”
6. Hamster amygdala stops screaming and frontal lobe feels smart (and if you’re me, sometimes smug. Let’s see ‘im argue with THAT one! :)).
I know this is a bit on the tongue-in-cheek side but I honestly think that’s what’s happening. Our feelings are being driven by our unconscious need to protect ourselves. I know when I stop to think and do a reality check of comparing my emotions to my experience, it can be a real head-scratcher* as to where my expectations are coming from. For instance, I often fear being met with anger, frustration or scorn when expressing something I have not revealed before, yet in my experience, BN has always been empathetic and accepting.
The truth is, we need to go back in spite of our fear in order for our amydala to “learn” that even though this once was a dangerous activity, it no longer is. Eventually, it even can learn it is a pleasurable and good thing to move towards the other because our needs get met.
This is incredibly frustrating because we cannot THINK our way through it; it’s not about what we know, it’s about what we’ve experienced. And we like to see ourselves as cool, rational, thinking people (especially in Western culture), so it’s a little embarrassing to know that a more primitive, reactive part of ourselves is really in the driver’s seat. If it was just about knowledge, we could walk through the door and our therapist would hand us a book “How to Live a Happy, Healthy Life” and we’d say “thanks! See ya!” (yes, that is my perfect fantasy too) but it doesn’t work that way.
So in CD’s case I recommended asking herself some questions. What does he win? Why is it bad if he wins? Why do I NEED to win? What do I lose if he wins? Then I said that if she found herself unable to answer those questions despite the intense feeling of needing him not to win, there’s a fairly good chance that your amygdala is running things. Each of us would need to come up with your own set of questions particular to our expectations.
What’s that dear readers? How do I know this? Cause *#*&$*()O(#^^ BN does this questioning thing to me all the time. I often talk in vague terms of dreading “it” happening, knowing that “it” needs to be avoided at all costs, but when asked what “it” is, a blank stare of confusion overtakes me and nothing comes out of my mouth. (Sometimes I think BN asks just to get a respite. :))
CD very bravely responded to my questions and said:
what does he win? he wins by me admitting by going back that i’m dependent on him and, G*d forbid “needy”. barf. it’s bad because it makes me more vulnerable than i already feel. i need to win so i won’t fail if i don’t change (if that makes sense).
Yes, this makes total sense. Many of us were so deprived that even our most basic human needs came to seem highly unreasonable because of how our asking to have them met was responded to. We had to protect ourselves from expressing our needs, to stop ourselves from getting hurt again and again. And so we wrapped our needs in layers of shame, the strongest motivator of aversion in the human arsenal. (See It wasn’t my fault and Identifying and Expressing Needs for more details.). There is only one way to defeat shame, which is walk into it, express it and endure the shock of not being treated as shameful (see The Paradox of Shame for more information on that process).
But through all of this, be gentle with yourself. You didn’t wake up one day and decide to make up reasons to be scared of your therapist. You carry years, if not decades, of experiences that taught you these lessons. You need to be patient and present, experiencing and expressing those emotions to an attuned, calm other to implicitly learn that the situation that used to be so terrible, no longer is. Not only should it not be avoided, it should be sought out.
*Sorry! For my non-American audiences, “a real head-scratcher” means puzzling. I know, I know, why didn’t I just say puzzling? Because I’m a technical writer and NEVER get to use idiomatic expressions, so I indulge myself when writing my blog. Thanks for your patience.:))
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