Sometimes it can feel overwhelming for clients to choose what to focus on in their weekly therapy sessions. Often, day-to-day events occur between sessions that become the focus of the week. While these events are significant to discuss and bring up in therapy, there is often much more beneath them to dive into.
Our past experiences consciously or unconsciously influence many thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in present-day situations. Past experiences also influence our expectations of future events. We learn from our past and use that information to make informed predictions of obstacles we may face in the future. When difficult past experiences are bottled up and ignored, their effects often come out disguised in other ways. For example, someone whose parents went through a difficult divorce may develop unconscious beliefs that all relationships are doomed to fail and find it difficult to trust others. As a result, they may self-sabotage every relationship they get into without knowing why. This person may want to focus on the day-to-day relationship issues they are experiencing in therapy rather than going deeper into the trust issues they have developed as a result of their parent’s divorce. However, by avoiding going more profound, this person may continue to find themself stuck in the same cycle.
Repetition compulsion, or repeating traumas in new situations that resemble past traumas, can occur when an individual has not worked through past experiences. The repetition compulsion often occurs due to shame (Whitfield, 1987). Shame is the feeling that you are inadequate or unworthy, often resulting in codependency. These feelings of shame resulting from past experiences often result in over-focusing on others due to feeling incomplete within yourself. Because of this, you may prevent yourself from recognizing your true feelings or needs and feel that the only way to feel whole is through a negative compulsive behavior that served a purpose for you in the past, leading to a repetition compulsion. Engaging in these behaviors may cause short-term relief but will most likely only contribute to ongoing shame and pain.
Reasons Repetition Compulsion May Occur:
- A desire to master the past trauma: At times, repetition compulsion may be done consciously in the hopes of being able to master the past trauma, overcome it, or change the result.
- Rigid Defenses: Repetition Compulsion may also occur due to rigid defenses that intend to protect you from a similar painful experience, but these defenses fail. For example, as a result of being abandoned by a parent as a child, a woman becomes extremely clingy in future romantic relationships to prevent herself from ever experiencing abandonment again. However, she ends up getting broken up due to her clinginess, bringing back those feelings of abandonment that she intended to prevent.
- Emotional Reactions and Cognitive Interpretations: When difficult emotions associated with past trauma occur in current relationships, it can lead to emotional dysregulation and distorted cognitive interpretation. For example, a man’s parents criticized and shamed a man who was emotionally abused as a child. When a friend recently provided constructive criticism, he immediately felt similar emotions to the ones he experienced as a child, interpreted his friends’ comments as much more harmful and harsh than they actually were, and overreacted to the comment by responding with hostility and lashing out at his friend.
When we think about or replay difficult past events in our minds later on in life, we typically re-experience both the event and the emotions that went along with it. The emotions that occur alongside these events are typically unpleasant, which results in us feeling worse about ourselves and leads us to try to avoid remembering these difficult times. However, if these cumbersome moments are worked through properly in a safe space, it can provide clients with the self-awareness they need to move forward and overcome their past. Going deeper in therapy might involve digging into childhood, increasing emotional awareness, working on self-esteem and self-worth, exploring values and motivations, and looking different for every client.
Becoming aware and identifying your emotions is an essential first step in going deeper in therapy and is part of the support system you receive from your therapist. Part of this work is allowing yourself to sit with these emotions and recognize that even though they are uncomfortable, they are not dangerous or harmful. Once you recognize the emotions that often occur for you in the present, you can go deeper to see when you have experienced these emotions in the past. It is essential to acknowledge and validate your emotions, recognize the connection between the past and present, and understand why you might feel the way you are.
Going deeper in therapy may include looking at unmet needs and core issues that present themselves in situations that occur in your day-to-day life. People’s needs to feel fulfilled include safety, touching, mirroring, guidance, acceptance, loyalty, trust, accomplishment, fun, and freedom (Whitfield, 1987). Suppose these needs were never met in your childhood. In that case, you might try to get your needs met in maladaptive ways, and these unmet needs may present themselves in various situations and relationships.
Core issues are conflicts that need to be resolved and often result from difficult childhood experiences. Fourteen core issues are common struggles. These core issues typically present themselves through day-to-day issues and may be obscure to you right away. However, these core issues become more noticeable by digging deeper into these day-to-day issues or looking at patterns in our lives and relationships.
Core Issues (Whitfield, 1987):
- Being overly responsible
- Neglecting your own needs
- All-or-nothing thinking and behaviors
- High tolerance for inappropriate behavior
- Low self-esteem
- Being real
- Grieving ungrieved losses
- Fear of abandonment
- Difficulty resolving conflict
- Difficulty giving and receiving love
Talking about our core issues and emotions in a safe place allows people to tell their own story and hear it out loud. Once we begin delving into these deeper issues and addressing them head-on, it becomes easier to identify our emotions, struggles, and needs. Talking through these past experiences and getting down to the root of issues allows people to recognize certain truths about themselves, others, and their experiences. With time, it becomes easier to trust our internal reactions and intuition. It also allows shame to be reduced and healing to occur. Allowing yourself to identify, experience, and work through the pain and emotions from your past results in you gaining a sense of control back, so you can choose to stop suffering and let go.
Going deeper in therapy can feel scary and daunting. However, if your therapy sessions are too focused on surface-level issues that are not significantly impacting you, it might be time to dig deeper. You may feel that more than 45 minutes is needed to get into everything that would need to be covered, and this is true. It is important to remember that this process will take time. There is no way to resolve your deeper concerns in one or two sessions. You could dig into deeper issues in one session, focus on more surface-level issues in other sessions, and then go back into the deeper issues when the timing is right. If you feel that you do not know where to start, which is normal, your therapist will be able to support and guide you through this. With time, your core issues will become more apparent, and it will become easier for you to identify them playing out in your day-to-day life and interactions. When going deeper into therapy, it is important to remember that you will most likely not see immediate results or changes; instead, you will see gradual progress and improvement over time. Changing your mindset to focus on small changes occurring over time rather than focusing only on the larger end results will help you embrace this process.
It is paramount to feel safe, supported, and heard by your therapist. This sense of trust in the relationship should allow both you and your therapist to encourage you to go deeper in therapy. While it is your therapist’s job to challenge you and help you progress, they are not mind-readers and might need to be made aware of the specific issues you would like to delve deeper into. If you want to go deeper into core issues in therapy but are worried about doing so, discuss it with your therapist and explore your feelings. It will allow you to work together as a team and go at a comfortable pace. Although it may seem scary, taking the steps toward going deeper in therapy is well worth it and can be what is needed to help move you forward in your emotional wellness journey.
Whitfield, C. (1987). Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. Health Communications, Inc.