This week I continue my work with young people who have suffered the pathologically split state of mind. These young people have reunited with a parent but continue to struggle with the way in which their psychological and emotional self has been affected by the impact of splitting. The outcome for these young people is poor, even though they have reunited with the parent they had rejected when they were younger. All report the same symptoms, the same struggles –
They are prey to emotionally and psychologically embodied responses which distance them from the parent they once rejected – one young person describes it as a feeling of inner revulsion that arises within, prompting a desire to run away.
They cannot feel real in relationships with their peers.
Intimate relationships can go so far but no further, all report being unable to commit themselves to a partner, some have repeatedly lost partners on the basis of this inability to commit.
Their internalised relationship with the parent who alienated them is exaggerated and overly present in their everyday life. All of these young people report that even though they know that what this parent does to them is unhelpful on a day to day basis, it still feels like love and they still feel unable to do anything to push that parent away for fear that they will find themselves completely abandoned.
All of these young people are in therapy with me in an effort to address the relational and other difficulties they face in their lives. They range from age 18 to 40. To a person they cannot access the felt senses of relationship with the parent they once rejected. They literally do not know and cannot feel that parent’s love for them. They can know it intellectually and they can speak of the relationship being repaired but they cannot feel that parent’s love as a healthy person without the defence of splitting would feel it.
I am a humanistic trained psychotherapist, which means that I was trained to walk with the client and help him to find his own routes to healing. Carl Rogers taught us that the client will show us where he needs to go in therapy if we attend to his needs for being heard deeply enough.
Well Carl, that may be true for those whose minds do not have the Chinese walls of splitting in place but for certain it isn’t true for these young people. My humanistic training went well out of the window some years ago when I realised that the landscape that alienated children walk, drains from them both the healthy development of self and the awareness, conscious or otherwise of what is happening to them.
In therapy with young people who suffered alienation but did not get help at the time, the lack of awareness at any level of what has happened is what is strikingly obvious when they arrive through the door. These are young people who are usually very successful in the outside world, they report doing well at school, university and work related endeavours, they are well liked and they are supreme diplomats, often to be found at sites of conflict where they smoothly aid resolution. When one sits down with these young people it can take some time to work out why they are in need of therapy because they are emotionally literate, often confident in the company of others and they do not appear to have anything particularly wrong with them.
Some will report having been through difficult times in their teenage years. Some, particularly young women, will present with emotional instability and a sense that there is something wrong but they cannot work out what it is. Young men on the other hand will often present with a very outwardly stable sense of self and a concern for others around them. In both presentations, deep attending leads to the same place, a wall which is deeply set in the psyche, a wall which has no door and which, if we are not alienation aware, we will return to again and again in a futile effort to get the client to take ownership of their own healing.
I first began encountering the wall in the psyche of alienated children and young people fifteen years ago. The wall of course is the defence of splitting. When I first began working with alienated children and families I would arrive at the wall and attempt to persuade the child to show me how to get through or around it. I believed that the child themselves, by manoeuvring the external dynamics, could let down the defence of splitting. I didn’t properly understand splitting at that point and like many other psychotherapists, I fell into the trap of believing that it could be addressed in therapy. It can’t. At least not in the way that one would normally address a defence.
The dictionary definition of a defence mechanism is an unconscious psychological mechanism that reduces anxiety arising from unacceptable or potentially harmful stimuli. In that respect it is not difficult to understand that a child in an impossible position of being pressured in the family system will adopt the defence of splitting to resolve the intolerable dilemma of not being allowed to love both parents. What we know about defence mechanisms, is that they are almost always the healthiest response to an unhealthy situation. The problem with this particular defence is that it comes into play at a time when the child is developmentally vulnerable, meaning that behind the defence is a the small child who first used the defence as protection. Not only does the young person not know that the defence is there, the child within them is still afraid of letting it go because in order to let it go, the child requires the felt sense that it is safe to do so and they can only get that felt sense through the presence of the parent whose love they were forced to reject in order to survive.
A felt sense is the embodied sensation of love. It is the warm fuzzy feeling inside that occurs when we know we are loved.
And therein lies the terrible trap for these children who are now young people. Because to once again feel that a parent loves them, they have to let down the defence mechanism which is built into their psyche like a hidden wall in a forest. But they cannot let down the defence if they do not know it is there – meaning that many of these young people remain alienated from a parent in the felt sense, even when they are reunited with them in the physical sense. Which leaves a sort of hungry ghost like relationship between child and parent in which the flow of love is stopped up and yet the longing for the love that once was remains.
Treating this problem in young people has become a real focus for me and it is working with the felt senses that has brought the most powerful changes for them. Alongside working with the felt senses, I also work in a co-therapy role with the rejected parent, meaning that I bring that parent into the work we are doing, not to talk but to do something, because it is doing not talking which creates the dynamic change.
Which pretty much renders any kind of humanist focus to this therapy meaningless, so thanks Carl Rogers but you don’t cut it with this client group and whilst psychodynamic work can be useful in helping us to get to the wall and attachment work is fine when the wall has come down and the child inside is able to receive love again, it sure as hell doesn’t help us whilst we are staring at the wall.
Which leaves us with what, to help these young people take down this wall inside their minds?
It leaves us with the task of re-parenting the child behind the wall. It leaves us as therapists with the job of teaching the child about why the wall is there and being with the child behind the wall for long enough for our re-parenting guidance to be heard at the deepest level.
What I realise as I do this work is that in our reunification programmes, when we reconfigure the external world and then go in and move the child, we are able to let the child know immediately that it is safe to reconnect to the parent they have been forced to reject. This allows the defence mechanism to drop immediately, which is why when we reunite children through residence change, we often see the remarkable re-emergence of the healthy child immediately. When I am working with young people who did not get that opportunity however, I am working with the frozen responses of the child who was abandoned behind the wall, the child who is deeply buried in the adaptive adult persona which has become wrapped around the child like a cocoon.
One cannot expect a child in that state to emerge in self directed therapy and one cannot expect a child to grow healthily until that cocoon is unwrapped and the wall is taken down. Which is why this therapy is so different. It is directive, it is based on doing not talking and it is always accompanied by being with the parent who was rejected as much as is physically possible.
Learning, doing and being.
A little bit like when our children are small and we teach them, show them and encourage them to try it out for themselves.
Put that on repeat and the wall does come down.
And when the wall comes down the love flows and the capacity to receive love without it being overshadowed by the negating force of the alienating parent grows.
It is directive therapy using re-parenting techniques with a goal orientated focus of taking down that wall by any means. Because when the wall comes down, everything else becomes possible.
I’m making a map of it right now so that those kids who are abandoned by CAFCASS to live with the wall inside their minds, will at least have a recovery route to follow when they grow up.