More Thoughts on Working With Hostile Introject

Another way the hostile introject can be softened is through an intense, long-term relationship between therapist and client. The therapist shows the client what Carl Rogers called unconditional positive regard.  Because the client gradually sees the therapy relationship as increasingly more  safe over time, he reveals more and more details about activities his internal critical judge has shamed and guilted him for.  He either never finished them,  or did them poorly.   The client, seeing the therapist as an authority figure  unconsciously expects the same critical reaction from the therapist.  But the latter just listens and shows by her behavior that she doesn’t see the client as as a failure.  She notices  the lack of  internal or external support in the client’s life, and attempts  to help  him understand why he doesn’t finish things and has come to judge himself in negative ways.  I have observed a number of scenarios.

1.  Internal Shaming:  A very common dynamic is the client runs into a rough patch in his activity and begins to shame himself instead of supporting himself through the difficulties.   For example, a client is very critical of himself because he has enthusiastically started many creative activities such as learning to play the guitar, but then soon seems to lose interest and puts the guitar aside.   The same sequence occurred with other creative activities:  writing, painting, building ship models.  He actually is unaware of what’s going on inside of him at the point he gives up.  But he is aware of the very negative things he says to himself about his giving up.

The therapist listens and asks the client to imagine himself back in the moment he felt frustrated and put down the guitar.  He asks him to focus literally on what he is feeling  when this happens.  I often find that clients don’t have any idea what they are feeling, so I ask them to focus on the bodily sensations they are experiencing at this point.  The client then realizes he is feeling tense in his body and that he is very critical of himself for not sticking with the guitar.  He tells himself he is a loser, a quitter, and doesn’t have any “follow through.”   I comment on how hard he is on himself and say, in a sympathetic way, “You really beat yourself up when you stopped trying to learn that song.”  The client responds, “Well I am a failure!  You must see me the same way!”  But I say, “I have a hunch that there are many reasons why you gave up at that point.    Let’s take a close look at what was happening inside you when decided to quit.”

As we explore his  history with the guitar, we find that he was finding the chords and the finger picking very difficult. I ask him to notice what he is thinking and feeling as he recalls the incident.  (This is very important because the the client  has never  previously focused on precicely what he feels emotionally at the moment he stops playing.  Instead, he always indulges in some addictive behavior like taking a drink or eating a sweet.)  Now, with my support and encouragement, he begins to notice the helplessness, frustration and shame that are triggered.     He tells himself he will get back to it later on, but, when he sees the guitar in his living room, he notices that he has a sinking feeling in his abdomen and decides to do something else instead

We find as a result of this exploration–and it must be done, over and over again–that his internal critical judge, instead of encouraging him to go on and work through the difficulty, berates him for having it.  His avoiding the activity then actually makes a lot of sense.  Why continue doing something that results in frustration and helplessness?   Of course his inner critic doesn’t see it that way; he says something like  “I knew you wouldn’t be able to do this.  You have no talent at all.”

2.  Authority Figures’ Neglect and Lack of Support  During Childhood

It can help a therapist work with clients who have shaming internal judges if he or she is able to empathize with the client because of his  own history with a hostile internal judge.  And this often can only happen when the therapist has had his or her own treatment and been able to access this judge in himself.  I became aware of this in myself many years ago after I bought a fixer upper house and was attempting to install a needed electrical outlet.  I was having  great trouble with the wiring and, as I struggled with it, realized I was sweating profusely and becoming more and more frustrated.    I suddenly realized I was feeling shame and where this shame stemmed from.  My father, who was a machinist and a man who could do almost anything with his hands–playing the banjo, overhauling the engine in his car, building fine furniture, all with seeming ease–never tried to involve me in these activities.  He also never told me how he had learned to do them so well    The result was I assumed they should be easy and was expecting myself to do things I had never been taught.  I was implicitly comparing myself to someone who must have gotten from others what I never got from him.  I realized at that point that my self-shaming was ridiculous and that I had suffered from that for years.

My client similarly lacked anyone in his childhood who helped him learn how to sustain involvement in any difficult activity, so he hadn’t internalized a kindly, supportive internal “parent”  who could encourage him to stick with something he was finding difficult.   Through our long-term relationship, he began to internalize me, to imagine me with him when he ran into difficulties with a creative act,  and to follow through.

3.  Authority Figures’ Criticism and Imposition of Grandiose Demands During Childhood

Many clients who have difficulty supporting themselves through difficult tasks had parents who made great demands on their child to succeed at intellectual or creative tasks.    Instead of rewarding them when they did succeed,  however, they acted like that was just expected of them and not deserving of praise.  The classic example is:  the child comes home with a report card that shows 4 A’s and 1 B.  The parent  then says, instead of praising her for the A’s,  “How come you got a B?”  When this critical response is voiced over and over again in many areas of the child’s life, she is apt to experience much stress when performing difficult tasks later in life.  She just doesn’t  do them.  The attitude is:  why do them  if there’s no payoff?   The exception would be  when the activities  are rewarding in their own right.