The Invisible Child

I’ve always struggled with the term attachment, used in my profession to denote the relationship that is supposed to develop between mother and infant during the earliest months of life. I may be too concrete, but it makes me think of those poor monkeys in Harlow’s experiment, clinging to that cloth-covered metal skeleton; it seems to imply a kind of physical connection when in fact, it’s all about the emotional relationship. In his video on attachment theory, Allan Schore brings that relationship to life when he speaks about the complex interactions between mother and baby — the role of eye contact, physical interaction and facial expresions in creating secure “attachment” — but it still seems to me to be the wrong word.

I’ve had a similar problem with Kohut’s word, mirroring, because to my concrete mind, it suggests that what the mother does is behave like a physical object (a mirror), though lately, I’ve been feeling better about it. In my work with several different clients, I’ve been struck anew with the role of our parents’ attention in creating our sense of self, how important it is that we feel that we are seen. In a fundamental way, we come to know who we are by witnessing our parents’ responses to us; in particular, the joy and love we see in our mother’s face convey to us that we are beautiful and important. Allan Schore has shown how the infant comes with a set of inbuilt expectations and behaviors geared to elicit those parental responses; when the reality of an engaged and loving mother meets those expectations, the result is a secure “attachment” (ugh).

It also results in a secure sense of self, the basis for later self-confidence and self-esteem. But when those expectations are disappointed, as I have explained elsewhere, it leaves the infant with a sense of intrinsic defect and basic shame. This is particularly true when the environment is highly traumatic or abusive. Lately, I’ve also been thinking about a parenting style that isn’t overtly abusive but vacant or largely withdrawn instead. In such a case, though basic shame is an invariable result, the person also develops a sense of unreality, as if he were invisible. It’s as if she looked into the mirror of her mother’s face and found no reflection whatsoever.

In a recent session, my client Alexis was speaking about her boss, with whom she has had an intense and problematic working relationship for many years. Lately, she has “woken up” to the rather nasty ways he sometimes treats her; in this particular session, she told me that she felt as if her boss wanted nothing to do with her or her actual emotional experience. As a result, she had come to feel like a “ghost” at work; this made her want to retreat from their relationship in turn, becoming an impersonal function and discharging her duties in an efficient, detached way. I linked this to her relationship with her father, a college professor who had largely ignored her and her sister, warning them to be silent as he retreated into his study with the graduate students who came for their tutorials. She had felt invisible to her father, and desperate to be noticed by him.

Alexis also linked this feeling to her mother, a woman who had felt over-burdened by her children and very much wanted to be left alone. Alexis recounted a story recently told to her by her sister Adrienne. Around the age of 8, Adrienne had begun suffering panic attacks in the evenings. Their mother’s response was to give her an over-the-counter sleeping pill and put her to bed with Alexis (age 10), who was then responsible for moving Adrienne to her own bed whenever she felt able to sleep. This “hands off” approach to mothering was typical. Whenever the girls were fighting (as they often did) she would tell them she preferred not to get involved or play referee.

I suggested to Alexis that she felt her mother had wished her to go away, which left Alexis feeling like a ghost, scarcely real. Rather than discovering her sense of self in her mother’s joyful expression, when she looked for a reflection in that mirror, she found it a blank. This discussion helped me understand yet another reason why she has resisted the idea that she’d ever finish treatment and go it alone. Over the long years of our relationship, my bearing witness to her experience and taking a deep interest in her as a person has felt precious to her, an important source of the sense of self she has developed through our work together. On some level, she’s afraid that without me and my attention, she would cease to exist. As a child, she must have felt that way in the absence of parental involvement: as if she were invisible, a ghost child without physical substance.

We ended the session by talking about the importance of being seen and known by others, how at the end of the day, it’s a very small universe of people who “get” you, who are capable of actually seeing you for who you are. It seemed important to acknowledge that I have felt seen and known by her, as well, and that our long relationship has been important to me. How many people understand the work that I do and the psychological issues I consider most important as deeply as Alexis? In a weird way, you’d have to say she knows me better than many of my friends. I also derive a sense of who I am through the mirroring Alexis and my other clients provide to me, just as there’s a kind of reciprocal mirroring that goes on between mother and child.

I wonder if this is why therapists sometimes find it hard to let go of their clients. Maybe they can’t bear to lose that mirroring; they might feel that when a client of long-standing terminates, they lose a little bit of themselves, too.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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Early in my career, when clients would talk about intense forms of self-criticism or self-loathing, I used to make interpretations that focused on the savage and perfectionistic superego. Over time, I’d help them develop the…

72 comments

    Yes, I can absolutely relate to what you’ve written about Alexis, and needing to be “seen”. My first therapist did for me what you are doing for her, and I didn’t want to ever quit seeing her but she “pushed me out of the nest” more than once, and then left abruptly when she decided to retire and move out of state. That was one of the most painful endings I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve had many.

    I was never ignored outright as a child, but there were endless attempts to get me to fit in and conform and so I felt like I could never be who I was because I always had to hide myself to avoid angering everyone else. At work, though, I am completely ignored to the point where I am not even consulted before decisions are made about my position and duties. It’s almost surreal at times.

    I’m sorry about your therapist. I think mental health professionals sometimes don’t realize how important they are to their clients, and how traumatic these kinds of “abandonment” can be.

    Joseph,

    Thank you for your blog – I gain a lot from your insights into the therapy relationship. I’m a long-time reader who has never commented.

    I’m writing because my therapist and I are off-and-on and he seems to have disappeared on me. After a lifetime in foster care, and several abandonments, I started seeing a therapist a year ago. I went steadily for a few months and then I felt that he wanted me to be more independent, and come irregularly to sort of check in, or when I needed help with something specific.

    We had an appointment two weeks ago that he canceled for a personal unknown-to-me reason, and I haven’t heard from him since. I’m freaking out. I don’t know if I said something to offend him and he’s dreading talking to me, or if something horrible happened to him. I just can’t stop crying…and I’m wondering whether you have done that to a client? Or, do you feel some clients are too needy or are offensive and therefore, you hesitate to respond to them?

    I’m normally a high functioning individual and I just feel leveled. And what if something happens to you? How would your clients know or find out?

    No, I have never done that to a client. I feel bad that you’re examining yourself and your behavior in order to explain his unethical actions; it’s the way young children come to believe they are defective or unlovable when in fact, their parents are limited. Whatever your therapist thinks of you, his behavior is unprofessional and insensitive, to say the least.

    This is difficult for me to read as I know when I fell into deep depression, even though I convinced myself I was still there for my kids and it certainly felt like I was trying so hard to not let them down, I did and they felt a abandonment, becoming invisible. And I know my kids wondered why they weren’t enough to make me happy. The reality was they were what kept me alive and fighting to get better. And even though I tried to always help them not internalize my problems, blame themselves, which is what children do, they still to some extent did. But I have to say, there is very little support out there for kids with parents with mental health struggles. People would tell me that if I helped myself, my kids would be fine, but I despaired knowing it wasn’t that simple and it can take a long time to get better–and that time can be a child’s childhood. It was so awful knowing that I wasn’t strong enough to overcome and that I was failing my kids and that it would have an impact on them, giving them their own suffering and psychological struggles to overcome. I think as soon as a parent is struggling, there should also be support and help for their children. I wish societies would put a lot more thought into how to help children and help their parents help them too.

    I think recognizing the ways your own difficulties have impacted your children is one of the most painful experiences imaginable. I know there are ways my own issues have permanently affected my kids and it’s deeply painful to me. I give you a lot of credit for recognizing the truth; all you can do now is do the best you can, and try to be present and available for your children to the extent possible. It’s never too late to become a “better” parent, even if we can’t completely undo the damage.

    Sundra – I admire your honesty and courage. I grew up invisible. My mother is mentally ill and unable to get the help she so desperately needs. As an adult, I still feel that absence profoundly.

    I just want to say that if my mother had the capacity to feel and express what you just have, I have no doubt that we would have a very satisfying relationship today. Being a parent is a lifelong relationship, and it’s never too late to pursue a relationship with your kids.

    Thank you chewing taffy. I actually have a close relationship with my children and always did. And they’ve all said at different times that when they have a problem, they know they can always come to me. Even my youngest who is in her teens and we are going through a difficult time, told me she dreamt she was in a distant place, stranded, and that although I had no money to travel and didn’t know where she was, she knew I’d find a way to get to her and bring her home. And I would. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that my own issues and struggles deprived them of the secure, happy, balanced environment children need. Although they’ve also said that they wish I’d stop blaming myself for all my failures because they say that makes them feel as if I think there’s something wrong with them. So even that which I thought was me helping them not internalize my failures turned out to be not so good. I just wish I could have given them all they deserve from a mother.

    Sundra – I hope you can take in the love and forgiveness your children are freely offering you. All of us make mistakes and have struggles in life…nobody has a “perfect” parent…and to aim for perfection creates another mess of problems!

    It’s so much better to accept and embrace what IS, and just keep moving forward. It sounds like your children are more resilient than you give them credit for. Celebrate their successes and tell them how proud you are of them.

    Being present now doesn’t erase the past, but I can only imagine that it would make it a lot easier to deal with.

    I’m a first time reader (via a retweet, thanks CG).
    I found this particually interesting, suggesting that trauma/abuse isn’t the cause of a breakdown of emotional relationships (attachment), and it’s enduring consequences. Your the first person I’ve come across in my many interaction with mental health professionals, who has come close to confirming my suspicions and is applying this into their practice.
    I’ve felt invisible for as long as I can remember, while still having a sense of self and something to contribute. Adding to that feelings of “people don’t get me” contribute a contadicting lack of self value, self worth.
    My father defaulted our care to my Mum, except when it impinged into his environment, only then would he engage us to “put us back in our place”. My Mum was and is a loving, engaging, encouraging parent, but when around my father would relent to his “dismissal” of me. Example: Mum would encourage us to discus and talt about our day’s activities as a family. However the only time we would be together as a family was at the evening diner table, served up at 7pm (father’s instruction) during the evening TV news, so we were unable to have discussions because father wanted to wathe and listen to the news (he is a jouralist himself).
    I have only recently recognized the unconscious contradictions expressed by my Mum.
    It all now feels like I’m an exploding “self contradicting bomb” in a world that I’m invisible to. I have tried to put my two-bobs-worth in, but continue to get an “ignore” response from those around me. My fall back position is to rely on logic, but when my internal “bomb” goes critical my logic is also contradicted.
    My emotional contradictions.
    My extreme state.
    My crisis of self.

    Thankyou,
    David
    (MDD, schizoid PD and when I’m on anti-D medication borderline PD.
    I hate diagnostic labels)

    David, I hate diagnostic labels, too, and don’t put much stock in them. You sound fairly insightful, but I don’t think I understand what you mean in the paragraph that beings with “It all feels like I’m an exploding ‘self contradicting bomb’ …” What do you mean about your internal bomb going critical, and your logic being contradicted?

    I nearly thought you were my brother, until you pointed our your Dad’s profession. Although our mother tempers her ‘warmth’ with the coldest coldness and a truly self-absorbed capacity to live in permanent victim hood as an excuse for her manipulation. An excuse that she won’t let anyone else have, even when their suffering is by her deeds.

    I know you don’t like labels, but Absent Father Syndrome seems to fit. He’s there but he might as well not be. He can do no wrong in his own mind because he does nothing at all. He is absolved from guilt because he does not participate actively. Just go along with it, stick with the routine/habit, head in the sand, backside in the air. It doesn’t matter if he’s going along with Hitler, because, he’s not making the decision….a wall flower. Mute to everything but work and routine.

    He wasn’t there so it’s like you weren’t either….if this mirror thing is the basis of it. Look into his face and see the channels changing. War and peace on the news, war and peace in our selves.

    Oh yeah. I am talking about my dad.

    I can relate to the following: “Alexis feeling like a ghost, scarcely real” “when she looked for a reflection in that mirror, she found it a blank” “she’s afraid that without me and my attention, she would cease to exist”.

    Thank you for posting this article. I can relate to Alexis as I feel/have felt that way in thearpy.

    I really enjoyed reading your article Joseph. I can relate to this feeling of being ‘the invisible child’. I think that, for me, entering therapy and engaging in it was a challenge precisely because I am being seen. And the process of therapy has been developing a gradual tolerance to being seen – which at times has been excrutiatingly difficult. Now I feel better able cope with ‘being seen’ I have a better sense of myself but it has been a lengthy process.

    That’s the other side of the issue: the fear of being seen. I suppose I ought to write about that as well, and the kind of safety there can be in feeling invisible.

    I look forward to a future article on the safety of beeing more or less invisible.( I look forward to all your articles.) Most of my life I have dressed and behaved so as to attract the least possible attention. I have dug upp enough traumatic episodes from the most formative years to see why I opted for such behaviour. And I am fairly sure that it is not so much an issue of beeing seen, as it is of beeing seen favorably, or even better, beeing seen with acceptable and loving eyes.

    I will definitely write further on this subject. I think that shame, of the early kind I describe on this site, is at the root of it.

    Oh, yes, please do. Like Britney, one of the hardest things about therapy for me is being seen. As much as I long to be visible, I’m much more accustomed to being invisible and there’s comfort in that familiarity. Being seen in therapy, especially in such an emotionally intimate way, is very difficult.

    Oh, yes..I’m another that would like to read a bit more about wanting to be invisible. That’s been a huge part of my work with my therapist. I was just remembering the other day how I used to be terrified to even move an inch when I first started with her, because I felt like I’d then “break” my invisibility. 2+ years later I still feel that to some extent. It’s been very hard.

    I would be interested in this – I go between wanting desperately to be seen and feeling very shameful when I am seen. My mother was depressed when I was an infant and the family situation was very difficult. I have constantly felt unseen all my life. Your post has helped me understand a bit more how my early experience has affected me and also how I struggle with being seen in therapy. It often feels more of a threat than attention.

    wow, the timing of this couldn’t be better!!! i wouldn’t say i’ve struggled with feeling invisible my whole life, even though i have indeed been invisible. it just was a given. it’s just always been a part of my existence. but lately, i HAVE been struggling with this feeling of invisibility in pretty much all areas in my life, and i finally was able to put the invisible label on it, then i stumbled on this blog. THANK YOU!!! this explains so much to me about why therapy is SO scary … because i AM being seen and man is it painful and SO uncomfortable!!! yes, yes, yes there IS comfort in being invisible, especially when you have never believed in yourself because you’ve never actually developed a self. don’t know if you’ve written that one yet, but i’ll be searching your site. again, thanks! i’ll be talking with my therapist about this next time i see him, for sure!

    Hi Mary. I’m glad this one hit home. Hang in there with your therapist and be brave enough to let him really see you. As painful as it might be, I think it’s worth the effort.

    Yes I do feel “seen”. After I typed out my response and hit send I reread it but wasn’t able to change what I wrote.

    There was a period of time in therapy where I felt like I only existed during that 1 hour a week. I would say that was probably the lowest I’ve ever felt in my life. Only feeling like I exist for those 60 minutes once a week. I lived for my 60 minutes once a week. If I didn’t have that I didn’t have anything. And the ‘needy’ feelings behind all of it were also a big struggle because it hurts to have needs based on past experiences growing up. It’s hard to change when I’ve been condition to expect a certain type of response like a non response for my most basic needs as a child. Even today asking for help is such a struggle and feels painful at times – but it is getting easier.

    I’m trying to avoid that neediness on my second round of therapy after a long break of about a year. In some ways I feel more ‘grown up’ this time around and I’m hoping that feeling stays that way. It feels so much safer being a grown up than a child in the ‘therapy room’.

    PS – during my one year break I did see another therapist thinking I would not have any feelings of attachment. WRONG! Unfortunately I had to end that therapeutic relationship because the therapists own issues/personal issues where getting in the way of my therapy – chronically late – forgetting appointments – clearly in some sort of ‘depressed state’/disheveled appearance. I felt bad for her but my therapy had to be about me not her…. so I went back to the first therapist because we clicked.

    I’m glad you went back to your first therapist. It’s a very good thing when you “click” with a therapist, and you can’t avoid feeling and needy and dependent simply by ending a relationship and moving onto another one. Well, I guess you can avoid it … it’s just not a strategy I recommend.

    My memories from growing up are Mom usually was at work and Dad usually was usually was in the garage, heavily medicated for his bipolar and schizophrenia, reading, smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee.

    I don’t remember being cherished just for being me — though Dad paid lots of attention to my grades in school (straight As), my IQ tests (showed high intelligence), and my performance in sports (good enough to make the team). Mom seemed largely occupied with work and her other interests; today, I recognize her addiction to staying busy as the defense mechanism that defines her.

    Now I’m in my mid-30s, and when I’m honest, I can admit that few things please me more than positive attention from other people — which I think is me still trying to please Dad. So I’m pretty big on attention-seeking behavior and physical vanity: I love singing in the car and registering other drivers’ reactions, and I exercise almost every day.

    I am also romantically infatuated with women who are significantly older than me — which I think is me still trying to get some mother’s love. This lust has not been diminished by several years of marriage to a wonderful woman my age.

    Overall, I’d say I’m living proof of the idea that parents who aren’t attentive enough raise vulnerable children. In my teenage years, I discovered the soothing qualities of pot and porn, and both still play a big role in my life 20 years later. (Sometimes I feel guilty about these addictions, but other times I see them as survival aids and appreciate the hell out of them.)

    Yes, you are the living proof: when you don’t get that experience of being seen and cherished, you’ll likely crave it the rest of your life. Instead of feeling guilty about your addictions, or simply accepting them, you might instead want to look at what they help you avoid. Heavy involvement with pornography often means not feeling truly dependent upon your partner, not turning to her for your sexual needs but feeling you can satisfy them yourself, whenever you like, without needing another person.

    This is probably getting off-topic, but in my case, my addictions help me avoid — or put another way, help me temporarily neutralize — chronic feelings of inadequacy and ugliness.

    I guess I could “sit with” those feelings until I am comfortable with them. But to some extent, isn’t that akin to telling someone with diabetes “sit with your lack of proper insulin until you are comfortable with it.”

    Given that the childhood deficits we’re talking about leave permanent disability behind, could it be that the trick is not striving for abstinence from vices but finding vices that don’t hurt you much (like pot) and maybe even help you a bit (like exercise)?

    Dr. Burgo, I know I’ve gone off-topic here, but maybe in a future post, you could discuss addictions and the balance between abstinence versus acceptance. It’s an issue I battle with, and I suspect many others do, too.

    the singing in the car thinking about other drivers’ reactions is interesting… i was definitely an invisible child and i struggle with the shame and the narcissism… i have felt the car thing too… but what does this hyper-vigilance of other peoples’ reactions mean? is that wanting to be seen in an anonymous way? it amuses and shames me but i can’t figure it out…

    I’m not sure what it means. In narcissism and in shame, other people’s attention is always the issue — whether it validates our shame or supports our defenses.

    I was severely abused by my dad and neglected/ made to feel invisible by my mum. The feeling of my relationship with my mum is that she mostly “looked straight through me”, though she spent a lot of time talking to me and doing things with me, there was not an emotional connection. Then there was having to conform to a false self (not showing the abuse, not showing anger, or fear etc., being perfect) which added another layer of invisibility. I get very riled in life now when I feel I am not being listened to or that my true self is not acknowledged. Yet having one or two people in the world who “get you” can totally help. I have high levels of depersonalisation and derealisation, probably due to the emotional neglect by my mother and also the PTSD resulting from the abuse – and try very, very hard to foster an emotional connection as strong as I can with my own children, though ‘the past’ still takes up a huge amount of my emotional and psychic resources. Really good post.

    Thanks, Anna. Trying to forge that strong emotional connection with your own kids, given where you came from, must be a challenge; I give you a lot of credit for making that effort, given all the deficits of your own childhood.

    It’s a pleasure to read your insights, Dr. Burgo. I admire and appreciate your willingness to share from an honest, humble and growth-seeking perspective.

    Thanks! I’m glad to be finished with my book so I can get back to blogging more regularly. I very much enjoy it, especially all the interactions with site visitors.

    Like many who have written, I was not seen by my parents for most of my childhood. As the oldest child, I spent much of my teen years trying to fill in as a parent towards my younger siblings. The hole it left has often overwhelmed me. I spent my twenties drinking too much and over eating trying to fill the emptiness. At around 30 I stopped running and met that pain head on. Now, at 35, the emptiness looms large now and again. Rather than reach for something to fill it, which never worked, I allow space and see that it will pass. I tell myself that I will love me; the adult I am now, will deal tenderly with the unseen child I carry within me.

    Warren, I think that what you describe — allowing space and seeing that the pain will pass — is a very difficult thing to do. So often, we fear that the pain will go on forever, and so we ward off the awareness of it. Good for you — stopping the flight and facing the pain head on.

    Lately, she has “woken up” to the rather nasty ways he sometimes treats her; in this particular session, she told me that she felt as if her boss wanted nothing to do with her or her actual emotional experience.

    This is so familiar and painful to me. My last job, I liked…except when I had to deal with my boss, and my fear of my boss began to colour so much of my working life. I ran into some old classmates a few months ago and went for a drink, and was actually surprised that there were people who found me smart, funny, bubbly, worth catching up with; because my boss routinely dismissed my thoughts, was impatient with my questions and did not find my sense of humour funny. After I was let go I wrote a note to myself about all the things I know and all the things I like to do, because even though I worked reasonable hours, my erasure at work had started to exhaust me and drain the colour out of my personal life as well.

    It does call back to painful childhood experiences; the last time I felt so comprehensively erased as a person was around the age of twelve. Although perhaps all adolescents go through that “teen angst” stage of feeling unwanted and invisible, since we all do struggle with identity at that age?

    I suspect I was a fairly needy and high-strung child with parents who had, in their own words, “raised themselves” because their own parents were hands-off or preoccupied. They were absolutely “good enough parents” and I get along well with them as an adult, but I was an angry toddler and an even angrier adolescent.

    They may have been “good enough” in some objective sense, but it seems they were good enough for you because of all that anger you were carrying around. Something was definitely amiss.

    What an interesting, and moving, post. I started to cry while reading it. This is admittedly not the first time that I have cried because of something that you have written. I suppose that the reason for all the tears is that I so rarely feel understood….and when I finally DO feel like there is someone out there that understands, the relief (if that is the word I am looking for) is so intense that I start to cry.

    I was abused by my father until I cut off all contact with him when I was 15, shortly after my parents finally divorced. The abuse was hard enough to deal with, but it was also hard to deal with the fact that my mother potentially had the power to end my suffering (by leaving him), but chose not to do so. In a sense I felt invisible, because I felt like my needs and safety as a human being were totally ignored. Don’t get me wrong, my mother has many wonderful qualities but I will always feel regret that she didn’t leave my father sooner. Couldn’t she see what living in an abusive home was doing to me?

    Thank you, by the way, for all that you have written. The first post I read here is about basic shame. What you describe is so real and true, I feel shame down to the core of my being. I have only just recently realized that shame is what I have been carrying around with me all these years. I have tried to describe what I feel to people I care about, and they don’t understand (although not for lack of trying). I am happy for them, actually, that they can’t fathom what basic shame feels like. So I guess the next best thing is READING that someone else understands.

    I understand just what you’re describing. In my own therapy, I often had that experience — when he understood something nobody else (not even me) had every understood and I felt truly seen. It was a very moving experience, in part because it makes you feel less isolated, so much less the outsider or the freak who is nothing like other people.

    The thought of people feeling invisible makes me sad. To paraphrase a blogger who is a consultant for teachers and other professionals, when we care about someone we take interest even in what may seem mundane. Thanks for the post to highlight how someone people have deep seeded reasons for feeling invisible and how the right help can make the person realize they are precious. Of course, it takes time…

    I have only found your site recently and it is great to hear interesting articles from the other side. This one is timely. I am in the process of changing my counsellor as she ‘doesn’t get me’! my actual words yesterday at our session. I have been wondering, brooding, worrying about why things have not worked out and why I am feeling angry with her for what I hear as opinionated, judgemental interventions, not really ‘listening to me as me’. I come away happy sometimes but other times a bit flat or empty, like something just is not right.

    When I was growing up my mum was often preoccupied,( there were problems at home) and I did not realise at the time but I was quite lonely. Things were not good as a teenager and I spent the last two years at school coming in late to classes, skipping classes. I still dream about it on occasion drifting around like a ghost in schcool buildings. Nobody ever said anything to me about it at school or at home.

    Getting back to my counsellor, not being seen or heard properly is something I guess I am really sensitive about, particularly in counselling… my expectations are pitched very high

    Your expectations don’t sound so very high to me. Isn’t seeing and hearing clearly what we expect a good therapist to be able to do?

    Joseph,

    I’m hoping to read more from you someday about those who avoid attachment and long for invisibility.

    Personal story to illustrate my own case below, a bit long for a comment, but I hope it will contribute to the reflection about this theme.

    I’ve been in therapy for more than three years now. My therapist is experienced and competent, I appreciate him (could say “we click”), I know he empathizes and cares deeply about me, and I know quite a bit about him and care about him too. But I don’t feel a lot of attachment.

    For personal reasons he has to travel away often (a typical schedule looks like available for 6 weeks, away for 3/4 weeks, repeat; he told me about this from the first appointment). Actually I found and still find this arrangement convenient (time and money issues), and I am to some extent relieved when he travels away.

    Apparently, reading here, elsewhere, and also attending some group therapy sessions this is not how it’s supposed to work.
    By the way in my case intensive group therapy sessions (2/3 days each) seem to be very effective: in the first one both my therapist and I learned a lot more about me than in too many frustrating individual sessions. He suggested them pretty early but I was reluctant for a long time.

    Back to attachment. A recent example: I was pretty badly depressed last week-end. We discussed about that last week, and he thought it could be a reaction to the fact he is going away after next week, because (after some searching) I told him I felt “abandoned”. I don’t think it’s about him. Really. He asked me several times previously in the same situation how I felt about him not being available for a few weeks, and I told him the same thing: no problem, I even enjoy that it gives me a break.

    My down of last week-end is much more likely to be related to my financial issues, stress caused by being unemployed and trying to start a new career without much confidence about my choice, stress caused by the fear that my depressive days prevent me from working out these issues efficiently (which is self-fulfilling and knowing about that doesn’t even help), and a recent return to a solitary life after having spent a few weeks with my newly found overseas lover (actually my first relationship, and I’m in my thirties) and then relatives. I now rent a room in a house in a city where I don’t have many friends, I have been in this house for three weeks, I don’t know any of the 9 other housemates and I don’t even want to see them (which also means “be seen”). I’m trying hard to get my boyfriend to come here to live with me but we are having immigration issues and setbacks, which adds to the stress.

    So my therapist is the person I’ve known for the longest time here, he is even part of the reason why I’m still in this city, in the current circumstances I would be expected to cling to him, yet if he suddenly disappeared without any reason (extremely unlikely, I really trust him) I don’t think I would feel really sad, just pissed off because it’s not respectful or professional (and I would now be stuck in a city I don’t like that much, and really not pleased about the prospective shopping for another therapist). On my side I also feel that I could end the relationship anytime and I am regularly tempted to do so. Still there though, what’s left of my rationality telling me that it’s probably better to continue (and reading about how therapy is supposed to work and take time helps with that).

    Still, my therapist is certainly more attached to me than I am attached to him.

    Possibly related: when I started seeing therapists it really felt like going to the prostitutes to me. Emotional prostitutes, just there for the money, taking advantage of deprived people. Same deep shame going there. Maybe I’m still not over that.

    Also, for more context, I recently reread about schizoid and avoidant personality types. I know how useless these labels are for individual cases, but they are handy as (re)search keywords. And I recognized myself in some of the traits: the autonomy, the need to keep people, even (especially?) the few ones I’m really attached to at a distance, the need to conceal/suppress emotions, the isolation, the loneliness, the daydreaming, the lack (until recently) of interest in pursuing an intimate relationship, and (something my therapist taught me) extreme sensitivity.

    It sounds to me as if you have some very strong defenses in place against the experience of dependency. Some of it comes through in your account — for instance, your insistence that your therapist is more attached to you than vice versa sounds like a kind of denial, where you have projected the need or desire for contact into him. I wonder if your therapist is addressing your defenses against need in the context of your relationship.

    We discussed this and apparently as long as I feel and know he cares it’s OK, I’m not required to feel strongly attached to him and he won’t force that. I really don’t think it’s a denial in the way that I could actually be more attached to him than I think I am. It’s more a denial of attachment, a need to keep some distance and independence.

    Indeed I have an aversion to dependency (either way). I like animals but don’t want any. I can’t tolerate getting addicted to alcohol, drugs or even medication. I don’t want to depend on people, nor people to depend on me. We discussed this several times in therapy, but it looks like there are other fundamental issues to address at this time.

    I realized recently that I certainly needed more positive attention than what I received in my youth. I remember feeling often bored at home or school (lack of challenge). I also thought quite negatively of myself: uninteresting, out of place, inattractive, annoying, creepy. I was also very sensitive about rejection and ostracism (me or other children) and so became wary of group (pack) behaviour pretty early. I wasn’t feeling invisible, but had doubts from a young age about being really welcome (or having a place) in this world. All this ended up in reinforcing contempt and mistrust of others.

    What brought me into long therapy was realizing, after seeing doctors, counselors and reading some “self-help” books that I was way too fucked up for standard recipes (willpower, SSRIs, counseling, “short therapies” etc): going nowhere in self-isolation, but unapproachable and unable to do any significant, sustainable progress about this on my own.

    I just hope to read more about your own experience with avoidants and the like.

    First, it’s amazing, and a little disheartening, to read of so many contributors to this blog comment arena who have had terrible experiences with their own therapists. It seems to come up over and over. How can clients fight back, short of a formal licensing board complaint? There needs to be some middle ground. Yelp?

    Second, I wonder whether the attachment to mother thing is just overblown. Bruno Bettelheim famously posited that the communally-raised kids in the Israeli kibbutz system would grow up to be psychologically damaged. Later research showed they were just fine.

    I don’t believe it’s overblown; instead, I think that “mother” is perhaps a more flexible concept that we usually think.

    Me, too, with both words.
    Attachment just sounds too clinical to me, and yes, weirdly physical.
    I also dislike the word “mirroring”.
    A mirror just reflects, the word “reflect” is popular in psychotherapy, too.
    I want a therapist who is affected by me, and the word mirroring doesn’t convey that.
    Mirrors are hard, nonporous and merely reflect the individual.
    All these associations with the word “mirror” make it a poor choice as a therapeutic term from my perspective.
    I want a therapist who’s there as a person, not a frickin’ mirror reflecting me.
    It also makes me think of the annoying habit of some therapists to repeat what I just said.
    I heard it, I said it, I know you can hear!
    I understand what is meant by the term, it just doesn’t give me the associations attributed to it by some therapists.

    For me, another annoying phrase popular with therapists is “the room”.
    “Do you feel supported in the room?” a therapist asked me.
    Do you mean by you? Because I could give a shit about the room.
    We’re two people here, so as a therapist, why are you depersonalizing my experience by referring to “the room” instead of yourself?
    How about the word “container”?
    Rooms, containers, mirrors, reflections…
    There seems to be a bias towards using depersonalized and alienating terms in Psychotherapy Land.

    I think it must reflect some discomfort with the very personal, direct nature of the psychotherapy relationship (at least a good one).

    How do you feel about “attunement”? I had forgotten the word until recently and feel more positive about it, though it’s still a technical term where we’re discussing an emotional relationship.

    Interesting that you asked about the word “attunement” because I almost included it in my original post. My last therapist used it so often that it hurt and disappointed me.
    It felt impersonal and technical, as you mention.

    I agree that it must reflect my therapists’ (my last two used these technical terms often) discomfort with “the very personal, direct nature” of the relationship.
    This troubles me.
    I’M the one with fear of intimacy-do my therapists have it, too?

    I longed for my therapists to use everyday words to describe their relationship to me.
    Dr. Burgo, do you think I should avoid therapists who predominantly use these terms to describe our relationship?

    I think you should rely on your feelings to tell you which therapist to see. If you feel connected, regardless of the words he or she uses, that is most of what you need to know.

    In therapy for 18 yrs. I can’t even begin how to explain how much I love my Doc. She is the only one who “gets me”, who validates my life & my pain. Doc & I have been dealing with my recent conviction of hopelessness. It’s one of my defense mechanisms I use to deal with my disappointment of life or yet another failed attempt to give up my addiction (junk food). Today I googled “hopelessness and in therapy” leading me here.
    What I’ve found here is profound & insightful. It’s like reading my own Doc’s words, which I tend to forget week to week. Thank you for understanding. You remind me of my brilliant Doc.

    I just came upon this post, so I hope it’s okay to post a late response. (I feel I have to say, for the record, that I bought your book on Oct. 29 and love what I have read so far. I was getting a bit overwhelmed by the exercises, so have put it aside for now.) I saw myself immediately in the term “invisible child,” the sixth child of an emotionally absent and probably depressed mother and an angry father. The youngest of us in the family used to feel that no one would even notice if we didn’t come home. I have also found that attachment theory explains my lifelong depression and other problems better than anything else, and I find the mirroring that goes on with my therapist has been crucial to my ability to trust him enough to become truly visible to another, for the first time in my life. Still, it’s a hard slog, and after three months, I know I’ve got a long way to go. For me, my invisibility problem extends to my confidence that my therapist actually hears or sees me. I often feel that from week to week, he does not remember what I say. So here is my question, Dr. Burgo, if you would be kind enough to answer: How much do therapists remember about their patients’ issues and stories from session to session, and does it even matter? I realize the answer will vary from therapist to therapist, but would you, for instance, remember what your patients talk about from week to week? Many thanks for your response, your website, and your book.

    It’s a very interesting question. I often don’t remember in the way I think clients would like me to remember — that is, it’s not fresh in my mind as the next session begins. But during the session, most of the important bits from the prior session spring to mind when some new detail touches them. I find I remember what’s truly important and don’t recall all of details. (On the other hand, I can tell you the names of my clients’ childhood friends years later, after we’ve stopped talking about them.) I understand why clients can feel invisible if their therapist forgets a detail, but it’s not the details that count.

    Thanks. That helps me understand, and I can see how the details don’t really matter. I’ll keep your answer in mind the next time I start to feel invisible.

    I realized later that I forget the details of what my therapist says, too, and if he expected me to remember, I would be stuck. So I see that the invisibility problem can go both ways. Thanks again for your thoughts.

    Oh my God this hits home. Not long ago…I tried to convey something to my therapist….something so utterly beyond depression. I’ve finally come up with the words….ghost. i feel like a ghost…in the land of the living. i feel cold, entirely numb…and dead inside. and quite frankly…when you feel dead…well…..you kinda want to be. it’s like a black hole. i see things around me….but i can’t be a part of them. i feel somewhere else…..quite frankly….like I’m in a grave. I interact sometimes based solely on autopilot….what i think would be the appropriate response to whats going on around me. but overall…i feel totally disconnected. i feel….like the world around me is a dream. or maybe i am, i don’t know. i feel….invisible. wow. well even more recently….i realized something, from many flashbacks and memories….and I said to my therapist….that i was invisible to the people I wanted to see me….and I tried to be invisible to the person that I didn’t want to see me. I either was invisible…or I was trying to be. Hiding in …..horrible dark places….literally…as well as figuratively. I also had a very traumatic childhood…and everything that was my own…was pretty much annihilated at a very early age….so I don’t have much of a sense of ONE self. (three maybe…but not one) So….now I’m wondering….if this invisibility thing….coupled with never being able to think or feel anything for myself……are sort of a backdrop….for these black holes I fall into….and can’t climb out of without assistance from something that jolts me back to ‘life’…..let’s me know i’m alive. anyway….this whole post was just….quite haunting. in both a good….and bad way. weird. thanks.

    I think I need to write something about “black holes.” It’s an image that comes up surprisingly often with people trying to describe an experience like yours.

    Dr. Burgo:
    Thank you for this article. I have recently been exploring the concept of myself as invisible as a child, and I wonder if you could suggest more resources for me to read?

    Thanks.

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