As children we pick up on everything and experience all feelings as our own, even when some are aspects of our parents’ spoken and unspoken concerns. When feelings are too complicated or overwhelming they get set aside; however, they are not forgotten.
Earlier this year, we explored the 4 Rs - Rupture, Regression, Repair and Resolution. When a Rupture unbalances us in the here-and-now, Regression brings the past unexpectedly into the present as a tangled mess of feelings. The discomfort that follows can be painful and often puzzling. As my clients become more aware of these feelings, they begin to recognize the most intense of these emotions, the ones they fear most, are sense-memories from the past.
In the following group psychotherapy session, group members work together to help each other grow the emotional muscles necessary to explore the then-and-there intrusions of Regression.
Jim updated the group on his continuing disappointment with his wife. “I know I have more self-respect because of the work I am doing with all of you in group, yet the lack of connection my wife has with me feels achingly familiar. In the moment, it feels like a new wound even though I sense at some level it is an old emotional memory. I don’t know how to handle myself with her because when I am vulnerable, she either cuts off emotionally or verbally humiliates me.” Francie asked Jim if he thought he might be using his wife’s inability to connect as a way to justify cutting off from her. Jim responded in frustration saying “What if her love is just a façade?”
Grace wondered if Jim’s wife’s struggle might be similar to hers. “I realize the kinder people are to me, the more alone I feel. My mother told me not to trust people who offer help or kindness, so I don’t.” She added sadly, “I feel like I am constantly holding my breath and this has been going on for as long as I can remember. It is as if she brainwashed me into believing I was some kind of a freak who doesn’t deserve kindness and care. It feels like my life is in ruins because I can’t escape her influence.”
Doug said he might feel something similar when he fears he will be rejected for not being likable. “It is easier for me to avoid moving toward others, even when I want to, so they can’t reject me.” Grace said she understood how Doug couldn’t allow himself to feel worthy of acceptance because of how he was treated in his family. She let him know she experiences him in group as being available and tender in his connections. Doug said he liked hearing her expression of care for him.
Jim expressed appreciation of Doug’s continued efforts to take risks in group and shared how in business situations he feels nervous when he has to engage with others and then is pleasantly surprised when he is well received. Doug wondered what would have to change for Jim to have similar success with approaching his wife. Jim wondered aloud if perhaps “the solution is awareness of the cause.”
Hank announced that the difficulties with his father had surfaced again. When this happens, “it is as if I don’t know him and he doesn’t know me. It confuses me that my dad would want to hurt me. If I defend myself, he makes me feel guilty and ashamed for standing up to him. When I don’t defend myself, I feel angry and sad for pretending everything is ok when it isn’t. Either way is frustrating. My dad talks to me in a way that leaves me no room to respond. I hope you all know that I couldn’t have realized this if you hadn’t told me that my intrusive and intimidating behavior in group makes it difficult for you to connect with me.”
Francie reflected, “I am aware how willing my partner and I stay stuck in a pattern of not knowing each other just because it feels familiar. For me, it is as though when I fight with her, it actually quiets my abandonment fears.” She continued, “I realize fighting is a way I get attention and a feeling of connection with her. While it seems strange, negative attention is better than getting the ‘nothing’ I expect. So round-and-round I go, creating disruptions to avoid feeling alone with her.”
Hank added, “I am also beginning to realize how, when my dad throws energy at me, even though it might look like a connection, it isn’t really a connection or even an effort to connect because there is no room for me to respond.” Jim admitted recognizing Francie’s ‘round-and-round I go’ pattern with his wife and owned that sometimes when he gets the connection he wants with her, he has a way of either not letting himself appreciate it or he finds some way to devalue it.
Grace realized she isolates herself by pulling in and shaming herself. Francie said she pushes at people for connection when she is anxious and then feels bad when they move away. Doug wondered if he might reject himself first and then gets fearful of others rejecting him. As they each recognized the similarities and unique differences of how they protect themselves, they seemed to feel good about being honest with each other.
Regression is the most misunderstood and avoided step in the 4 Rs model because it contains and conceals difficult feelings from the past. When Regression follows a Rupture, our sense of self and safety as adults is threatened when the past seems to take over the present. The urge to reject these uncomfortable feelings or to redirect them onto others is often compelling and can lead to a sense of profound loneliness. In the 4 Rs, Regression helps us focus on old feelings set aside in childhood.
When regressive feelings start to overwhelm my clients, I remind them that they have already lived through these frightening experiences. I help them see how when they get locked in Regression, they become frozen in their past and can’t take any productive action in the present. Becoming emotionally resilient enough to make sense of unresolved then-and-there sense-memories from the past allows them to fully live in the here-and-now.
Group psychotherapy is among the best treatment practices for clients struggling with relentless regressive feelings. As group members track and share their feelings, they help to slow down each other’s anxious reactions, enough to begin identifying past feelings of shame and dispelling faulty assumptions. As a group develops itself into a secure relational resource, group members can confront their fears; explore relationship dynamics; and recognize avoidance patterns.
Staying with one’s difficult feelings in a psychotherapy group allows members to witness for each other what could not be remembered. Group members help each other create room to address old regressive feelings and transform them into personal road maps toward Repair - the space of deeper connections.
Summer 2015: A July/August Blog will delve more deeply into the 4 Rs with reflections on Repair.