During my fifteen-years of practice as a Clinical Psychologist, I have had the pleasure of sharing in the experience of my patients’ abilities to live happier more fulfilled lives.
Penny came into treatment feeling very unhappy and dissatisfied with her life, as a result of painfully repeating a pattern of becoming involved in relationships with emotionally unavailable men. She was 35-years old at the start of our five-year once weekly therapeutic journey together. This is a relatively common theme I have encountered with numerous patients. My method of treating patients varies based on the patients’ individual needs. Every therapeutic relationship is unique, and helping someone reach a place of happiness requires embracing each patient’s distinctive qualities.
My first step with Penny was to establish a comfortable trusting atmosphere; this created a safe place for her to share painful thoughts and feelings. I also listened carefully to her presenting problem; while listening to her painful struggle, I created hypotheses about how her problem evolved. For Penny, her difficulty resulted from her fear of opening up and being able to make herself vulnerable to a man. Penny’s resolve was to choose men that were emotionally unavailable, so that she never had to risk making her own self available. Although I had a conceptualized and now understood the origin of Penny’s difficulty, it is important to guide the patient toward awareness; I needed to help Penny discover what was causing her to repeat her destructive patterns.
Once I sensed that she felt comfortable with our relationship, I asked many probing questions, encouraged her to be curious about why she was stuck in this cyclical pattern and her thoughts about herself self-image. It became clear that she had received subtle messages while growing up, that she was not good enough and ultimately could not live up to her parents’ expectations. These messages, early on in Penny’s life, left her feeling unworthy and unlovable; these feelings left her feeling very uncomfortable being intimate – if she made herself vulnerable and opened up to a man, he would realize that she was not loveable.
The next step in our therapeutic journey was to help Penny become aware and accept that the way she felt about herself, was a direct result of these messages she received as a child. Once she could acknowledge this, verbally articulate the meaning it had for her, we were able to be attentive to how these ideas about herself left her feeling. It also helped make her aware of how these experiences related to her presenting complaint. While working on these feelings and their origin, I also helped Penny focus on her strengths – rather than her weaknesses – as she so repeatedly did.
Penny spent many sessions focusing and attending to the emotional losses she endured having been raised by parents who never valued or believed in her aspirations. This is very damaging to one’s ability to develop a secure identity as an adult. Through the process of therapy, Penny gained resiliency, and the ability to feel secure about herself and her decisions.
In traditional psychotherapy intellectual awareness always comes before a real fundamental emotional understanding; this emotional awareness is vital for change. As difficult as Penny’s journey into her past was, she finally was able to make some deep emotional connections; she became able and willing to accept that she would not gain the validation she so desperately wanted from her parents. She did however, find the internal resources to believe in herself. As a result of her motivation and perseverance in therapy, Penny was able to learn to love herself and to establish a secure identity; both being prerequisites for establishing a loving and reciprocal relationship.
Four years into our therapeutic relationship, Penny met a man who was emotionally available, loving, and accepting of Penny; he loved Penny and she was able to openly accept this love. She was now able to realize that she was worthy of this love; she was also secure enough with who she was to open herself up and be vulnerable for the first time. I saw Penny transform before my eyes; Penny was glowing with happiness and love for the first time in her life. Just prior to the termination of our therapeutic relationship, Penny married this open, warm and loving man. Penny described feeling content and happy; she had worked so hard in therapy and was finally able to relish in happiness.
Dr. Jacqueline Simon Gunn is a Clinical Psychologist and Author of “In the Therapist’s Chair”. In addition to her private practice in Manhattan, Dr. Gunn is the Psychology Internship Training Director and Clinical Supervisor of the Trauma Program at the nationally recognized Karen Horney Clinic.
Dr. Gunn has one M.A. in Phenomenological Psychology from Duquesne University, another M.A. in Forensic Psychology from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and her Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology from Miami Institute of Psychology. She also completed a two-year certificate program to specialize in Eating Disorders, Addictions and Compulsivity at The William Alanson White Institute. Please visit www.drjacquelinegunn.com for more information.