Stuck Grief : Why is it you are looking into therapy?

A man I work with came up with this phrase, “stuck grief.”   He was referring to himself and why he was having trouble with near psychotic thinking. The “crazy” thoughts were preferable to recognizing what they symbolized: another extremely painful  memory of abuse from his father. He was saying, very articulately, what was going on inside himself: stuck, or unexpressed (and surely unresolved) grief.

I realized that stuck grief was the basis for what goes on in therapy sessions including all of our histories and especially forgotten, denied  or ignored incidents and realities. People avoid what brings pain, and until they have dealt with the pain and resolved it, they tend to continue what ever emotional habits maintain their avoidance  Even very high functioning adults, maintain unhealthy behaviors  because they are not willing to face the truth of their childhoods. Sometimes it is  loss of the relationship with their families that they fear, or having to confront the imperfection of their parents.  Ultimately It turns out to be an avoidance of growing up.

If someone has something that needs grieving, and they avoid the recognition and therefore the grieving, I call that stuck grief. It is  accompanied by some behaviors that aren’t healthy for the person, their children, their spouse, their customers, business associates, someone.  They often use an addiction  to keep the pain out of their awareness, like  drug or alcohol use, over working, lots of sex. It can become confusing to tell the difference between what you need with what is best for your children, and a  handing down of all kinds of human distress.

Stuck grief buried within a person can become the basis for just about anything that might bring someone into therapy.  This is why doing therapy takes courage, and a different kind of courage than many people are familiar with.   So, if you are looking for more than a bandaid, if you really want to understand yourself and make significant change, pick your therapist, your guide, carefully.

When People Choose The Wrong Partner

This is my own personal opinion, borne out by many clients I have encountered.  I haven’t heard it from other therapists, and it certainly is not the usual explanation given in my profession. But it is my opinion:

When we are small children, we all need love, and we need it consistently. We need love that is intelligently given, so that, for example, as children we are  given age appropriate challenges that we can master – thus building or self esteem.  We also need to be loved just for existing, for being our parent’s pride and joy because we lie in our beds at night breathing.

Most people don’t get the kind of love they need. Many have parents completely unable to love them. When we grow up we still need that love we didn’t get. The longing to be loved  doesn’t go away just because it is time to move out of the house.

So we wind up picking someone as a partner who has enough of the attributes of the parent (or combination of parents) that they “feel” like the parent  we most still want to be loved by. In essence, we are picking a psychological stand-in for that parent. And then we work really hard to get that person to love us. But – because we are so good at picking stand-ins, we have picked someone who can’t love us either.  Often, because it really is the parent this partner represents to the child in us, this hurtful partner is hard to leave.

Many battered women fall into this category, and the sad thing is that if their parent was abusive they may have repressed any memory of the abuse ( for self – protection) and still pick people capable of abusing them.  When they hear this possible explanation, they can’t apply it because (1) they  have forgotten the abuse, and/or  (2) their denial of their parent’s cruelty keep them from acknowledging it. People want to believe they had good parents, otherwise their view of their childhood and their parents falls apart, leaving them with what feels like”nothing” to hang on to, to be their base.  They “lose” their parent.

This makes it hard for them to do successful therapy and strengthen themselves enough to leave an abusing partner, or one that simply is not well suited to them. I have found, however, if the therapist will  address whatever the person needs right now in therapy, then this in itself strengthens them to the point where they able to remember, work through whatever childhood issues they need to and make sense of their lives and their previous choices.  Best of all they are now free to choose a partner who can love them, as they deserve.

Transference in Therapy

What is transference and why is it important?

Transference can be an aid or a hindrance in  therapy. It can also complicate any of our relationships.

Transference is the phenomenon of transferring feelings from a significant person in your childhood to someone else. It is unconscious and it happens all the time to all of us. For example: you meet a woman and she reminds you strongly of your older sister who you were very close to. You will probably like this person and wish for a close friendship even before you know her very well.

In therapy, there can be positive transference, negative transference, or countertransference.

Countertransference occurs when the therapist is transferring feelings about their important people on to the client. It’s very human of the therapist but it is imperative that the therapist is aware of it and keeps the transferred feelings in check. Otherwise the therapist’s therapeutic judgement and reactions to the client can become clouded and compromise the quality and progress of therapy.

Positive transference is common at the beginning of therapy when the client is wishing for a “super person” who will “save them”. Someone with all the wisdom and skill needed to succeed at giving the client everything the client needs.
Positive transference is helpful to the therapist as the client is open to what they say and compliant to requests. When asked people in positive transference will often enthusiastically characterize their therapist as “Wonderful!”

Negative transference occurs when the client transfers negative beliefs and feelings from someone who was hurtful to them, onto the therapist. The client may say to the therapist: “you are out to get me and make me feel wrong all the time, just like my father,” or “you are judging me just like my mother did” or “you’re angry but you cover it up.”

Great work can come from “working through” negative transference. A profound change can occur when a client sees the therapist as they are and then realizes how much negative transference influences the way they relate to other people in their lives. It’s eye opening! Some “people their world” with their hurtful parents and find it such a relief to stop.

Too much positive transference can be a problem because the therapist is bound to “fall from grace” at some point. Often when a client’s “wonderful therapist” disappoints them the transference turns negative.

Bringing this phenomena of transferring feelings and beliefs to conscious awareness gives the client access to reality.  Then they can see the actual positive and negative attributes of the person who has been the target of their transference. It often has the effect of moving the person forward in personal growth and maturation.

More Common Questions

I’m afraid of not liking my parents if I find out they hurt me when I was little.  I want to be able to love them and be close to them.  Maybe it isn’t worth finding out what happened to me, or is it?

That is a real and serious question.  Would you rather live with the truth or with your hoped for fantasy? Would you rather have your whole self, or your relationship with your parents?  I suggest you look at what troubles you in life and decide how much you want that to be different.


So what in me probably has to do with past childhood abuse? No one is perfect, what can I assume about myself is attributable to childhood abuse? 

Low self esteem, relationship dissatisfaction, trust issues, lack of self actualization, unnecessary fears and anxiety,  problems with your sexuality, to list only the most obvious.  I have never known a person who has worked on their childhood abuse be sorry they did.


The Bottom Line on Therapy

So what is the purpose of therapy, anyway? What is it supposed to do for you?

Therapy gives you choice. It allows you to have choices instead of  automatically thinking/feeling /acting  from what your history taught you  – about yourself, other people and the world.

Your history, in this case, means your childhood.  During those early years you learned by experience what the world is like, what  to expect from other people,  and who you are.  For an example: for the child who was expected to mommy’s little helper and take care of her younger siblings learned that to be a good person was to figure out what someone else needed and do it for them. Maybe she learned to put her own preferences  and needs in the background, to never complain or think of herself first,  to think of herself as valuable only  in the ways she  could serve others.
So she grows up to be a what we all call a caretaker, giving “selflessly”, and  depressive without knowing why.  After all, everyone she knows says she is wonderful!  She finally decides to get her own career, and, you guessed it, she becomes a nurse. More depression.

She comes to therapy and discovers what she thought were her own choices where based on what she learned as a child  and decides to throw it all off.  Her kids do more chores around the house. Her husband comes into therapy with her because she is fed up of his self centered ways and expectations that she be his maid, lover on demand, and the one who takes care of the kids. She gets a new hair cut, loses weight,  quits the subservient good girl role at work and becomes an administrator… get the picture.

Therapy teaches you how your childhood effected you and gives you choices about what you want to do, who you want to be.  How does it do that? Look around at other blog entries, and if you have specific questions, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to explain.

Roots of Self-Esteem

Positive self-esteem is developed in many ways in children.  If your parents value you and respect your feelings, thoughts, preferences, and proclivities, while challenging you with age-appropriate, achievable goals – you will likely develop good self-esteem. This positive sense of who you are becomes a natural part of yourself – something you take for granted and something that holds up against life’s disappointments and failures.

Negative self-esteem can develop in a myriad of ways.  It is pretty obvious, if you have been reading much of my blog, how being emotionally, physically or sexually abused teaches the child that they are worthless, and that certainly will grow roots of poor self-esteem.  One of my Stories for the Unconscious The Good Prince” illustrates how negative self-esteem can develop in a person who is, by all outward measures, very loved and given lots of positive regard by his parents; but wasn’t allowed to find his true self.

I have seen over the years in my practice this exact problem in some adults of wealthy parents. In this situations,  the parents wanted control of their child and didn’t allow the child to investigate his /her own proclivities and learn his /her own strengths and talents. These parents have many values and directives that they press upon their child. As the child grows older,  the parents continue to hold the child hostage by the magic of their money and the threat of taking it away.  Other parents control the child by dint of their own personality – and use love, approval or fear as the currency of their control.  Most children are influenced to some degrees in this way in that we take on our parents values. (” Of course they expected me to go to college, they talked about it ever since I can remember” – can be a positive value and directive.  Oops! I guess my values are showing here!)

The difficulty lies for kids whose parents take so much control that their child, in order to win acceptance, pushes the best parts of themselves “underground” where the parents can’t see it. The abused child does this so the parents won’t damage that part of them.  For example, the boy who has talent as a writer and whose father would surely ridicule and beat him so he won’t embarrass Dad by being a sissy. This kid could shove that talent so deep inside himself that he wouldn’t even know he can write well until he takes a college course in creative writing.   The Good Prince put his real self underground in response to the enormous pressures of inheriting the Crown.

How Does Therapy Help Me Get Out of My Parents’ House?

This is the second blog entry in the series: How can therapy help me?

In a previous post, I discussed how therapy helps people make the changes they want. In this one, I continue the discussion.

OK, so you think this business of “living in my parent’s house” is what is going on with you. So, how does therapy help get you free to set up your own “place” to live?

From the previous blog, you understand the concept of adapting to your environment and generalizing, so that you assume what you learned about yourself,  other people and the world is pretty much the way you originally learned it to be in your family.

How do you unlearn these “negative beliefs”  that are not true?

1) Identify those pivotal times when you made these decisions about yourself, other people and the world. Therapy helps you find the incidents( or the general atmosphere) where you decided on these beliefs that were intelligent conclusions in that world you lived in.

(2) You get a chance to change these beliefs.  You get to see how you came to create these beliefs. Then, looking at the situation with your own adult eyes,  and through the clarity of your therapist’s eyes,   you can change the conclusion that you made as a child. Why is the therapist helpful? Because we see ourselves through the eyes that our parents gave us. The therapist, because (s)he didn’t grow up in your family, sees the situation for what it was.

For example, Your older brother was a science whiz and he and your Dad did all these science experiments together. They never included you.  You remember the time Dad got so frustrated helping you with your math homework.  “What is the matter with you – don’t you get it?”   When the family gets together with relatives everyone gushes over your brother and his science awards….you hang around the edges, pretty unnoticed.  You are shy, and your mother needs you to “act right”  (her version) in front of everyone:  “Why don’t you just go over and say hello, they are your cousins, you look silly just standing there, what will they think of you?” Doesn’t take much of this is you learn you are pretty inadequate and feel ashamed of yourself.

Many of us have had much more extreme situations in our families that made it abundantly clear we’re not lovable, worthwhile, or deserving.

Making these changes often feels risky  – and I will go into that in my next blog.

How Therapy Helps You Get The Happiness You Want

This is the first entry in a series : How can therapy help me?

Wouldn’t it be great to be happy all the time?  Life doesn’t dish out constant happiness, but all of us should be happy, joyful really, at least some of the time.

If you don’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have depression…there can be lots of reasons.  A big one is that many of us are living as if we were still in the world we  were born into – in our original families.

This is nothing to feel stupid about or condemn yourself over. When you were a kid you were  smart and you learned quickly what was going on in your world.  If there was a lot of anger and criticism, abusive treatment that no kid deserves, or high standards that no kid could attain, you probably  figured out the best way to cope with what you had to live with.

The problem is that all of us human children, (because we can’t afford to learn every new circumstance from scratch,)  generalize what we learned in the  world of our parents and siblings to what might happen outside the house with other people, and we were on guard for this to happen again.  This expectation of what is likely to happen  lasts — we generalize what we learned as children to the world we live in now. Many people  live like this much too long in their lives –  basically trying to  protect themselves from what isn’t out there any more.  Therapy helps a lot.

There are other underlying reasons  that keep us humans from being ourselves and enjoying our lives. Perhaps you are living someone else’s definition of who you ought to be.  Maybe to  be a good person in your family you took care of everyone, to help out your Mom, or because nobody else was paying attention, and now you have a knee jerk response of taking care of others over your own needs. Maybe your father was impressed with people who had a lot of money and you’ve become just what he wanted you to become – a successful business man, only you hate it and want to be home more.  Some people  stay married because their folks would be horrified to have a divorse in the family. There are endless varieties on this theme, and not much joy.

This discussion is continued over the next few blogs.


Forgiveness isn’t something to work towards, rather it is something that happens naturally in the process of healing. Once you are no longer suffering from the effects of what has happened, you find yourself no longer angry at your abuser. You may never want to see or speak to this person, but you do them (and ultimately yourself) the ‘favor’ of no longer seeing them as a monster. Once your rage has gone you find yourself seeing your abuser as a human being, perhaps very flawed, but human none the less.  Getting to this point is good for your body and your health. This is no way implies you are condoning what happened to you, but it is forgiveness.  If you try to get to the point of forgiveness instead of letting it happen naturally, you can’t help but miss essential stages in your healing.

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When people choose the wrong partner

Everybody needs love from their parents. When we were kids we quite literally needed it like food, and we needed it everyday. Many of us didn’t get the love we needed. The less we got as kids the more we still need as adults. As adults we often choose our partners hoping to get what we never got from our parents. In our unconscious cleverness, we pick people that are “psychological stand-ins” for the parent(s) we most needed love from. Without knowing it, we are looking to solve the childhood problem of needing to be loved.

If a child is not getting the approval and love they need the problem is most likely in the parent’s inability to love, not in the child’s deserving of it.  In our choosing a psychological stand-in, we choose some one who is like our parent(s), and therefore another person who can’t love us.In therapy you get to finish (within yourself)  the  emotional problem with the unloving parent. Then you are actually free to pick a good partner.

There are other strong influences that may appear as you begin exploring what is driving your choice of partner. For example:   A woman was the oldest child of apparently loving parents who both had to work full time. She was needed to take care of of her syblings when both parents were working.  She learned that the way to be valued was to be a caretaker and sacrifice her own needs. She chooses a partner who needs her care taking and continues sacrificing herself.

Influences from early experience formed your self image and taught you what you can expect from other people. The most powerful and longest lasting are those from our families. What you learned about yourself from peers, teachers, and other significant relationships also have a lasting effect.

We see ourselves with the eyes our parents gave us.  A good therapist can be useful in understanding  how you learned, and what you learned, about who you are and what you can expect for yourself in the world.