At the core of the therapeutic process is the theory that most emotional suffering and psychological problems result from difficulty facing the complex painful feelings that arise from broken attachments in early relationships when growing up. These painful feelings may be triggered by a recent experience so it appears to us that what has just occurred is the cause of our pain. However, in therapy, it usually becomes clear that the recent event is so painful and difficult to overcome because of the unresolved and often unknown feelings generated from earlier painful experiences.
The importance of relationships and attachment
Emotional connection to others through secure attachment relationships is so important to us because relationships are a source of protection and safety and are furthermore needed for our brains to develop optimally. When our early attachment needs for love and security are met with inconsistency, disinterest, rejection, critique or punishment, it creates intense feelings of rage, guilt about that rage due to co-existing loving feelings, and grief over the emotional distance that exist within those relationships. Attachment studies furthermore show that babies are extremely sensitive to the cues they receive about feelings from their caregivers. This means that when parents are uncomfortable with certain feelings and when they react negatively to them, we pick this up and learn which feelings are acceptable and can be expressed and which feelings must be avoided and suppressed as they threaten our sense of safety and security and therefore become associated with danger and trigger anxiety.
The connection between anxiety, feelings and defences
Due to the child’s dependency on early attachment figures and the central role of relationships and attachment in our lives, any thought, feeling or action that has become associated with separation from an important caregiver or with loss of their love will be perceived as dangerous and trigger anxiety and avoidance through defenses in the future. Therefore, anxiety can be perceived as the body’s alarm system as it tells us that painful feelings have come close to our conscious awareness and that these are dangerous as they are associated with the possibility of separation and loss. This is how emotions are connected to anxiety, which we unconsciously attempt to avoid experiencing by using various defenses.
To protect us from experiencing this emotional pain again, defenses gradually develop to suppress and repress feelings towards the attachment figures about the attachment trauma or rupture. Defenses are psychological, emotional and behavioural mechanisms that enable us to avoid the emotional pain we carry from these early relationships. In current relationships, however, these attachment urges become activated which triggers repressed feelings from the past and defensive patterns are intensified to avoid experiencing the emotional pain from the past in the present. This means that if painful feelings from the past are not faced and experienced directly, emotional pain and relationship ruptures from the past continues to have an adverse impact on our current lives and relationships
Avoidance of feelings through defenses can be experienced as problems with intimacy and closeness, obsessive and ruminative thinking, minimizing or forgetting events, becoming numb or detached, or displacing anger towards others. Avoiding and internalizing feelings can cause depression, anxiety, pain and physical complaints that have no medical explanation, and self-sabotaging behaviors. Therefore, these defenses can end up becoming the problems in our lives as they can significantly affect our relationships, productivity, level of insight, self-esteem and enjoyment in life.
How therapy can help
In therapy we work together to identify the anxiety symptoms and defenses that prevent you from having direct access to your feelings. You are helped to see your defenses and understand how they affect your life so that you can make the choice to let them go and start to experience your feelings. This process usually triggers anxiety, as the feelings that are being brought closer to your awareness are associated with pain and therefore a sense of danger.
Through therapy, you learn to regulate this anxiety so that feelings can emerge without overwhelming you. Once you are able experience your feelings from the past in the present, we can work through the thoughts and memories attached to these feelings, so that you can resolve your inner conflicts and experience inner peace and enjoyment in life.