As a therapist specializing in relationships, what I come across most often is the desire to be seen, heard, and understood. Whether it’s an issue between friends, a parent–child dynamic, interactions between couples, or complications across the family spectrum, people are yearning for satisfying relationships. Human beings are wired for connection, and it is central to functioning in a wholesome and healthy way.
The feeling of loneliness is one that comes up for just about every person at some point. Whether it is loneliness from truly being alone or in an isolating situation, or a feeling of aloneness that arises when in a room full of people, it is possible to have a sense of disconnect from the self, and this results in a very uncomfortable feeling with potentially damaging results for oneself and one’s relationships.
A common scenario is that someone comes to therapy to make a change, because they have been waiting for improvement in an area of their life and nothing has been changing thus far. They wonder, “What is going on? Why aren’t things changing in my life?”
In the same way that we each may have external environmental factors that keep certain changes from happening, therapy is a great place to explore the internal dynamics going on.
Yudit, a 26-year-old mother of three, shared that she felt the need to work hard to maintain the lifestyle she wants, and she feels torn since she also highly values spending time with her children. In addition to being committed to her job, Yudit feels that she must socialize and work out regularly as part of caring for herself. It can be very confusing for Yudit to navigate between her values, and she often feels guilty. However, Yudit tends to rationalize her priorities and avoids exploring anything too deeply. She is coasting along and mostly tries to ignore the nagging feeling of discontent that makes her feel she is never doing enough.
Yaakov, a 38-year-old business owner, complained of anxiety that felt too strong to manage on his own. Yaakov was able to describe the physical sensations of anxiety (he felt tightness in his chest) and explain how the anxiety showed up most often when he had to make financial decisions. He shared that no matter what he tried, the anxiety was overwhelming. After some discussion, Yaakov also shared that he would often drink to manage his symptoms of anxiety. The drinking is an example of something that was actually maintaining the status quo. Drinking protected Yaakov from having to address his anxiety and make any real, lasting, helpful changes.
Etty, a 45-year-old receptionist, complained of struggling to make and maintain close relationships. Etty shared about her interactions with others, and made it quite clear that she categorized people based on their status in the community. Her judgment of others stood in the way of Etty focusing on her own struggles not being addressed, including an avoidant attachment style and low self-worth. An avoidant attachment style typically includes being independent, coping with difficult situations alone, and being uncomfortable with intimacy. The judgmental part of Etty would come to the forefront to help Etty rationalize when it came to making good relationship decisions; however, her judgmental attitude was really just protecting her from having to face her own struggling internal dynamics.
In general, when a person is feeling stuck in an unhelpful cycle, that’s a tip-off that something else is going on in the internal system. It’s not about the other people, or the situations (which certainly may be contributing to the issue!), but rather this is where it is important to observe the reaction and notice what the reaction is actually protecting. For Yudit, rationalizing and disconnecting is helping her manage her life, though it comes at a price. For Yaakov, drinking is protecting him from exploring anxiety. For Etty, passing judgment on others is protecting her from having to face her attachment issues.
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of therapy views people as having three main interaction dynamics. In the same way that sometimes one person in a situation or in a family is the power figure and everyone else is interrelating, people have busy inner worlds where one part may seem to be controlling the others. For example, this could be a main “narrator” that interprets things in a certain way, or an intellectual part, or feeling like one must manage and control their busy inner emotional world.
We want parts of the system to work together instead of against each other. However, sometimes it seems that there are two strong feelings that are at polar opposite ends of one another, like Etty has when she feels that she wants to get close to someone but there is also a part of her that doesn’t feel comfortable being too close to people. Yudit experiences this when she wants to focus on herself and her work, but also has a part that values her role as an involved, loving parent, and she ends up feeling somewhat shortchanged every time she focuses on one or the other.
This is where the exploration of internal systems comes into play. Understanding the self is a great way of tapping in to lead and motivate oneself from a place of balance, harmony, and self-regulation. Two of the most basic steps to begin with include (1) naming the emotion and (2) awareness of the somatic feelings, asking where and how this is showing up in the body. This creates a beginner’s awareness of self, and a safe place such as therapy can be really helpful for those who are curious to find out more about themselves. Deeper reflection requires a desire to understand the self on a different level.
Two helpful questions for deep reflection include:
(1) What parts of your internal system don’t you like?
(2) What’s your reaction to that part?
The IFS idea of “self” connects really well to self-awareness, where one feels in sync with one’s own values, goals, desires. While I do think it is important to have self-awareness, this doesn’t mean that someone needs to be hyper-aware all the time. Have you ever driven somewhere and barely remembered how you got there? That’s an example of dissociation that may not be very safe. However, there are situations where it feels safe and comfortable to dissociate or just do what needs to be done even if it feels like autopilot. Still, while autopilot has its moments, the feeling of being connected to the essence of what you represent most often brings a sense of relief and can help people feel less alone.
Robin Gutman, LMHC, NCC, is a licensed mental-health professional and maintains a private practice for adults and couples. Robin specializes in working with trauma, anxiety, self-esteem, and relationship challenges. She is available for parenting consultation and speaking engagements. Learn more about Robin’s therapeutic approach by following her on Instagram @robingutman_lpc.