Eighth Annual Southern California Bioenergetics Conference
Workshop Sunday, February 21, 1999
Lawrence E. Hedges, Ph.D., ABPP
Retreating from Contact and Intimacy
There is a force in our lives that pulls us away from intimate relationships. While this force works differently for each of us, we all know its power. We feel it when we are with another person we want to be close to. We may be approaching some difficult-to-discuss subject. Or we may be considering initiating some more intimate mental or physical relating. Or wishing that the other person in the relationship would approach us more closely or initiate something more intimate with us. And then suddenly we begin to sense a distance between us being created. “Something happens” to change the scene, to limit the intimacy, to dilute the relating, to make real connecting impossible.
It might be that one of us shifts position, becomes distracted, or changes the subject. It might be that one of us experiences irritation or impatience that can be felt by the other. Perhaps one of us is frustrated, bored, or restless. Or it may simply be that one or the other of us is uncomfortable and needs a little change or separation. Possibly something in ourselves needs some space, some fresh air, some elbowroom, or a more comfortable situation.
If we have studied this hesitating or pulling away tendency before, we may get a quick glimpse of some hidden fear inside ourselves or in the other person as we feel the silent backpedaling beginning.
Lets us call this hesitating tendency “resistance,” because it marks a slowing down, an inertia in the forward movement of our relationships. If there is a high level of activity or emotion present, we may not immediately notice the resistance in ourselves or that the internal backpedaling has begun. If there is a change of focus in the relationship or some other slight discontinuity it may only be later, if at all, that we wonder about the nature of the discomfort being felt. Or why the contact we were experiencing at the moment may have been overstimulating, frightening, or numbing in some way. Our sense of mystery is increased further when the fleeing is from someone otherwise respected, loved, or sought after.
As we study the pulling back tendency, our capacity to notice the finer details of emotional attunement increases. We then become skilled at observing the ways resistance operates in ourselves and in others. We then notice how often we slowly clamp down on emotion that is building. Or how we silently move away from certain kinds of intimate moments. We can become more sensitive to subtle forms of distance created by ourselves and by other people. We can soon detect small momentary decrements in attuned relating produced not only by our own, but also by their resistance. We can notice their pulling away or their defensive strategies.
None of this is exactly new to us. Every day we approach people in various kinds of relationships. And we often pull away without quite knowing why. But the more we focus on the resistances operating in our relationships, the faster and more clearly we can detect the many and subtle ways our mind unconsciously avoids, limits, ruptures, or flees from intimate emotional contact. We can then begin to see more clearly how we limit and dilute intimate connections with members of our family, with close friends and associates, and with others whom we love.
Why Do We Resist Loving Contact?
If loving contact is what we desire most in relationships, how can we understand the universal resistance to intimate contact? Psychoanalytically oriented psychotherapists now make the assumption that human minds are organized by relationships. And that the mental and physical activities we engage in on a daily basis have been conditioned by the emotional relationships that have been available to us throughout a lifetime.
When it comes to relationships, we have all been more or less fortunate in various ways. Our more fortunate experiences have taught us to reach out hoping to find various kinds of loving connections. And our less fortunate experiences have taught us to fear and to retreat from certain kinds of relationships. So on the basis of our past experiences in relationships; it stands to reason that we would naturally search out relationships, which are likely to be good for us. And that we would avoid relationships which are likely to be bad for us. But unfortunately, we do not choose our most significant relationships in this way! Why not?
Because in our earliest months and years we all experienced disappointing, frustrating, and painful emotional relationships that influenced us in formative directions. As the twig is bent so grows the tree. As babies and growing children we learned a series of lessons about emotional relationships which have been fundamental in organizing our personalities and in determining our choices in later relationships. We learn quickly how to mold ourselves to what we perceive to be important emotional realities around us. So that our most basic sense of safety and love soon resides in the familiar patterns of emotional exchange we learned from our first caregivers–no matter how self-limiting or self-abusive those patterns might appear to an objective observer. We are attracted to that which is familiar in relationships, not to that which might be good for us. We are vulnerable to repeating interpersonal emotional experiences that are known to us and are often oblivious to or neglectful of those possibilities that are unknown.
Listening for Movement and Contact in Relationships
Psychotherapists are trained to listen carefully to relationship patterns as they appear in and out of the therapeutic setting. Therapists encourage expressions of relationships, past and present, in the general belief that the more we can understand our enduring emotional relationship patterns, the more choices we will be able to generate for ourselves in the future, and the greater our flexibility in relationships and life will eventually become.
Psychotherapists observe in their work the persistent tendency to transfer strong relationship patterns from the past into emotional relationships in the present. Therapists also note the tendency to resist entering more deeply into intimate relationships when there is the possible danger that previously experienced emotional injuries may recur–even when the overall relationship possibilities themselves are attractive. Therefore, when we find ourselves moving toward more intimacy in a relationship and at some point we begin silently backpedaling, the inference is that some form of avoidance has been previously conditioned to this particular pathway to intimacy. The further inference is that at some similar previous juncture relationship-pain was encountered that was severe enough to post an unconscious signpost that says, “Never go there again!” What has been transferred from past experience is wariness of certain kinds of intimate contact. What is being resisted is exposure to an intimate form of relationship that may produce intense pain similar to relationship pain known in the past.
What many people find surprising is that our own minds actually produce intensely painful, aversive, inert, and even confusing and disorienting experiences in order to warn us away from types of intimate contact and connection that have been known in the past to be disappointing or hurtful! Sometimes this warning may operate subliminally so that we are not aware of signal pain or anxiety, but simply of a strong aversion or a tendency to change the direction of the relating.
Seven Developmental Forms of Love and Fear
Psychotherapists now understand seven distinctly different kinds of emotional relationships based upon our desires for contact and intimacy in love and our corresponding fears of disappointment and injury in love. In the table below the seven kinds of desire and fear we experience in relationships are arranged in order of increasing complexity. Some people mistakenly think of this sequence as a developmental chart with the early infantile forms of relationship slowly growing into more mature forms. It is true that the most basic desires and fears are those experienced first in infancy and that the more complex forms of relationship only develop later. But it is also true that well-developed people live all seven levels of relationship complexity in most intimate relationships on a daily basis.
Seven Increasingly Complex Desires and Fears in Relationships
Relationship Strivings: Relationship Inhibitions:
The Sensual/Sexual Desires The Seven Deadly Fears
1. To reach out and touch Nobody will be there.
2. To connect I will be hurt.
3. To bond with another I will be abandoned.
4. To assert my autonomy I will be crushed.
5. To be affirmed as a person I will be unacceptable.
6. To succeed or fail in competition I will be injured or left out.
7. To thrive in a group I will be devalued or rejected.
Transference and resistance are assumed to emanate from relationship experience at all seven levels of complexity. That is, each of us has our own version of each kind of relationship desires and fears and we transfer those anticipated hopes and dreads into current intimate relationships. It is generally thought that the first two desires for contact and connection constitute a “one-bodied psychology” since emotional separateness is not fully acknowledged. The third through fifth desires for bonding, for autonomy, and for affirmation are generally regarded as “two-bodied psychology,” because they entail various forms of mutual recognition and reciprocal interaction. The desire for success or failure in competition and the desire to thrive in a group, desires six and seven, are considered “three-bodied psychology” since social triangles are always implicitly or explicitly involved.
What is The Organizing Experience?
“The Organizing Experience” (Hedges 1983, 1994a,c, 2000) arises from difficulties experienced in the first two levels of relationship complexity above. That is, from the desires for and the fears of human contact and connection in which the other person is seen and approached–but not fully, mutually, or reciprocally related to. In the desire for contact, reaching out in relationships has been disappointing in that it has not produced reciprocal responsiveness and has thus given rise to the pain of being alone. It has also created an ongoing constrictive fear manifest in a general body-mind withering and a terror of ever again reaching out for contact. In the desire to connect with another, reaching out in the past has produced a connection that was experienced as painful. It has also created an ongoing contractive fear manifest in a body-mind inhibition and a terror of ever again reaching out for connection.
The “Organizing Transference” refers to the particular ways we each re-experience these early conditioned desires and fears in current relationships and to the subtle ways we each pull back and resist intimacy in relationships
All mammals are born with the genetic instruction, “find the warm body or die.” All people experience the human desire for contact and connection. All people have experienced to a greater or lesser degree the fear of nobody being there and the fear of being injured as a result of a connection with another person.
The term “organizing” refers to the fundamental activity of organizing a channel, a pathway, or a link to another human being that either fails to take by virtue of unresponsiveness of the human relational environment, or which aborts by virtue of the conditioned pain that prevents ongoing reciprocal connecting. In either case the person is left perpetually organizing a reaching channel toward others and then–based on transference and resistance learning–either withering or constricting out of discouragement or pulling back or contracting out of fear. Both varieties of “organizing experience” are universal to a greater or lesser extent. And both kinds of organizing transference form the foundation for all subsequent kinds of relational learning.
An important corollary of this line of thinking is that people severely traumatized in utero or in early infancy may find it nearly impossible to trust relationships enough to allow more differentiated forms of desire and fear to develop. A second corollary is that when certain kinds of reaching are curtailed by a person’s early organizing experiences that further development along these particular relationship lines is likewise curtailed. What might a more average expectable development look like?
To the extent that reaching for contact and connection in early relationships have been successful; the more complex relational forms of interconnecting for symbiotic bonding experience and then of working through the separation and individuation experiences from the symbiotic partner ensue. Psychoanalysts refer to personalities that revolve predominantly around these forms of two-body relating as “borderline personality organization.” To the extent that symbiotic, separation, and individuation experiences are subsequently allowed to give rise to more regular and pervasive relational attempts to confirm the existence of a personal sense of self through the use of selfothers, the term “narcissistic personality organization” is often used. And to the extent that a full, independent, and constant sense of self and other evolves so that internalized early family and group triangular relationship patterns persist into current relationships, the term “neurotic-normal personality organization” is often used. The reason for mentioning “two- and three-bodied psychology” and “borderline,” “narcissistic,” and “neurotic-normal personality organizations” here is simply to contrast them with “the Organizing Experience” as a foundational one-body psychology.
How the Organizing Experience Works in Our Lives
The person living predominantly at the organizing level of relationship complexity does not generally engage others as separate or independent psychological selves or centers of initiative. This is because at the level of the organizing transference and resistance the sought-after contact and/or connection does not fully “take,” in the sense of being ongoing, mutual, and reciprocal. Such people have often been described as “cut off from the world of relationships” or “living in a world of their own.” I have come to use the metaphor “organizing pockets, limited or pervasive” to describe people who live significant parts of their relationship experiences in an “organizing state.”
Perhaps a metaphor for further understanding the organizing experience would be useful at this point. Imagine yourself in a lively interaction with another human being. Visualize an energy arc beginning where the other person’s body touches the ground. The arc of energy rises to fill and animate the other person’s body. The flow of the energy arc approaches you across the space between through the other person’s eyes, voice, gestures, and emotional projections which then enter your body, animate it, and extend down to your own grounding. In a mutually enlivening engagement such as conversing, playing ball, dancing, or suckling the energy flows freely and reciprocally in both directions along the arc with each person being fully attuned to the life force within themselves responding to the lively emanations from the other person. It is through this kind of lively and enlivening participation and engagement that human communication occurs and that consciousness of the cultural achievements of the human race are passed through the mind and body of an adult into the mind and body of a child. And later from one person to another. But if this energy arc has not been experienced as sufficiently enlivening or has been experienced as the source of injury by an infant, she or he will fear being re-traumatized by again reaching out and being either disappointed or injury. The developing person learns that human contact and connections are dangerous and to be avoided at all cost–turned away from, ruptured, broken, or abandoned by whatever means can be devised.
By using the inventiveness and cleverness present in good cognitive and emotional intelligence, the person living organizing experiences soon learns a variety of ways of limiting interpersonal relationships so that they can be experienced as somewhat safe. The diversity and complexity of human intelligence allows people to avoid certain kinds of emotional relationships and to develop into fine human beings in many, if not most, ways. But intimate forms of relating deemed possibly dangerous and pain-producing are regularly avoided with accumulating consequences. Notable among the unfortunate consequences are the tendencies to imitate human life and to conform to human expectations rather than to engage in the arduous task of negotiating the complexities of emotional-relatedness learning. As a result, the person may develop tendencies toward mania and/or depressive activities in order to join with or to avoid others–depending on the need, given her or his relational environment. Alternatively, the person may develop withdrawing, autistic, or schizoid tendencies in order to stay safely outside of the dangerous pale of human interactions. Or the person may develop what appear to others as unusual, persecutory, or bizarre thoughts and behaviors based on early cause and effect response patterns that originally had a motive to stay safely out of the way of interacting relationally with others perceived as frightening or dangerous. The person may have learned to dissociate one cognitive-emotional aspect of self from others in order to achieve a break in human connections, thus producing the sense of multiple personalities. Or compulsive and addictive patterns of consuming, holding, or evacuating various liquids, and solids or a habituation to other substances and behaviors may have evolved to serve the purposes of keeping the person out of contact with the human milieu or its representations.
In short, trauma in the two earliest expressions of desire (for contact and/or connection) sets up relationship fears that serve to prevent, to rupture, or to limit sustained relating with other human beings. The cumulative effect over a lifetime is to limit or restrict a person’s “relationship intelligence.” Substitute adaptive behavior patterns (called “symptoms” in psychiatry) are developed by the child which permit her or him to “pass,” to survive amidst a myriad of relational demands that are perceived as dangerous and to be avoided. Otherwise, the person may develop quite well and not experience undue difficulties in life until the person finds her- or himself in situations where relationship demands are unavoidable–such as school, dating, sex, work, or marriage and family.
Psychotherapy with the Organizing Experience
Psychotherapists study all of the relationships in a person’s life for clues that will permit formulations about how the person regularly moves toward human contact and connection. And then how that person regularly accomplishes some–transference or resistance-based–form of interruption or breach, which prevents sustained mutual and reciprocal relatedness. “Where exactly in the arc of energetic enlivenment has the person learned to interrupt the relating and in how many different ways can the interruption be accomplished by this person?” are the questions of the therapist.
When considered in this way the task of psychoanalytic psychotherapy with organizing experiences suddenly becomes clearer. The therapist must first spend considerable time and energy helping to establish an interpersonal atmosphere that the client can experience as safe. Next the therapist must encourage whatever forms of contact and connection the client can allow. Then the therapist must devise ways of holding the relating steady until the transferentially-determined resistance to relating appears. Finally, at the moment of interruption in the relationship an interpretation (verbal or non-verbal) can be offered. The interpretive gesture is designed to communicate somehow: “I see that you believe that you must pull away from our emotional contact now. But that is not true. You have repeatedly established for yourself that I am a basically safe person to be with. So now you can permit yourself to remain in connection with me a little longer than you might ordinarily allow with someone else. Thecompelling sensation that you are in grave danger, that your body and mind may at any moment experience excruciating pain or fragmentation, that you are confused or lost, or that you must somehow compulsively pull away is delusional. You have already established that I am safe to be with. You know that interactions with me can be useful and liberating. We have spoken of how terrifying it is for you to experience interpersonal intimacy in almost any form. You have the power to stay in connection with me now, despite your discomfort, restlessness, confusion, or terror. Contact between us can be safely tolerated for a little while longer. Try staying emotionally connected with me now so that we can see what further fears and demons lurk inside trying to pull you away, unnecessarily attempting to prevent your being hurt by our interaction. What do you feel in your body now? What shakiness, numbness, or terrors can you allow yourself to be aware of? Who am I to you at this moment? And how do you experience me and our relationship as a danger right now?”
The working through of the organizing transference consists of countless instances of encouraging the person in therapy to come to the brink of her or his sense of safety in the therapeutic relationship. And then for the therapist to find some concrete way of holding the person in emotional relationship a moment longer–long enough for some unsettling or terrifying reaction to emerge so it can be known and processed within the relationship.
Contrasting the Fear of Abandonment with the Terror of Connecting
Most therapists have been trained to believe that when people are having trouble with intimacy it is because they are afraid of emotional abandonment. And that the therapist’s job is then to provide some sort of emotionally empathic “holding” or “containment.” This truism holds if the transferred relational experience is from the more complex desires and fears referred to as “two-bodied” psychology–the so-called borderline and narcissistic states. But in “one-bodied” psychology in which the person has experienced early trauma associated with frightening aloneness or painful connection, empathic holding and containment does not work. In fact, attempts at empathic connection serve to re-traumatize the person in therapy, so that terror and various kinds of “psychotic symptoms” result.
Optimal Responsiveness with the Organizing Experience
The optimal responsiveness required to work successfully in the area of organizing experience begins with the establishment of a safe interpersonal environment, which can take from months to years to accomplish. The therapist gently but persistently encourages movement toward dynamic emotional relatedness. The therapist remains constantly alert for subtle signs of an emotional retreat that signals the arrival of a possible interpretive moment. Optimal responsiveness to the organizing experience, however, entails a realization on the part of the therapist that interpersonal emotional contact and connection transferentially warns the client of an immanent re-traumatization, so that the person quickly moves into some safety-searching, contact-avoidant activity (or symptom). If the therapist is prepared and moves quickly enough she or he may be able to seize the moment of retreat with a verbal or nonverbal interpretation of the emotional contact now being experienced. And of the terror, numbness, or retreat mechanism which is ensuing to avoid or rupture emotional contact. The client can be forewarned of the importance of such moments. And forewarned that the therapist will attempt some interpretive intervention at such moments in order to hold the interpersonal contact whenever the therapist senses it slipping. The client may then be willing to sustain the relating momentarily in order to experience whatever forms of pain, withdrawal, numbness, fragmentation, confusion, or terror may ensue so that two can experience them together. And so that the experience can be later processed and understood by both.
Working Through the Organizing Transference and Resistance
The working through process consists of therapist and client learning together over time how to catch in the moment the transferentially-based resistance to sustained emotional contact and connection. And learning how to hold these contactful moments together through whatever body-mind reactions of terror, numbness, fragmentation, and/or confusion may occur. It may be helpful to study the approach-avoidance patterns participated in by two in terms of basic freeze, fight, and flight reactions. And it will likely be interesting to notice how the client not only breaks contact within her or his body and between two bodies, but also how the client arranges to break the reciprocal energy arc in the mind and body of the therapist by precipitating various countertransference reactions. Accusatory “clamoring for more,” “demanding better attunement,” or “insisting upon needed kinds of responsiveness” often become ways of disrupting the therapist in such a way that the interaction or “interacting energy arc” is broken in the body-mind of the therapist! (Hedges, 1994a, c, 2000).
The “Organizing Experience” refers to the earliest human desire to organize channels for contact and connection–first with the maternal body and later with the maternal mind. And the corresponding fears of being painfully alone in the universe and/or of being injured as a result of contact. The specific fears associated with reaching for contact and connection are transferred into later relationships and serve as resistance to certain or all kinds of interpersonal intimacy. In psychotherapy, at the moment when the relationship desires are overshadowed by the relationship fears so that some form of withdrawal begins, the therapist can interpret the backpedaling movement as unnecessary–based on faulty perception and/or interpretation. The goal of psychotherapy with the organizing experience is to demonstrate in word and deed that the transferred terror of contact and connection is essentially delusional–as it is based on early developmental experiences and not on the current possibilities for rewarding intimate relating.
By encouraging the client to remain emotionally present in the relationship at a time when her or his internal instructions signal urgently for a retreat, the therapist fosters the reappearance for study of various terrifying conditioned reactions created by previous traumatic experience. Through repeated interpretive demonstrations of the essentially safe relationship with the therapist in contrast to the internally anticipated disappointment or injury, the person slowly experiences transformations in how she or he approaches and sustains relationships in the real world.
Bacal, H. (1998). Optimal Responsiveness. Northvale, NJ: Aronson Publishers.
Balint, A. (1943). “On Identification.” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 24:97-107.
Freud, S. (1895). “Project for a Scientific Psychology.” Standard Edition, 1:283-388.
___(1926). “Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety.” Standard Edition, 20:77-175.
Hedges, L.E. (1983). Listening Perspectives in Psychotherapy. Northvale, NJ: Aronson Publishers.
—(1992). Interpreting the Countertransference. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Publishers.
—(1994a). In Search of the Lost Mother of Infancy. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Publishers.
—(1994b). Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through Childhood Trauma. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Publishers.
—(1994c). Working the Organizing Experience. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Publishers.
—(1997). Strategic Emotional Involvement. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Publishers.
—Hedges, L. (1998) “Achieving Optimal Responsiveness with Early Developmental Trauma. A paper read at the Self Psychology Conference in San Diego, California, October, 1998.
—Hedges, L. (2000) Terrifying Transferences. Northvale, NJ Jason Aronson Publishers.
—Hedges, L. and Hilton, V. W. (In Press) The Seven Deadly Fears.
—Hedges, L., Hilton, R., Hilton, V., Caudill, B.(1997). Therapists At Risk. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Publishers.
Winnicott, D. W. (1952). “Psychosis and Child Care.” In Through Paediatrics to Psycho-Analysis: Collected Papers of D. W. Winnicott, pp. 219-228. New York: Basic Books.
This chart, an elaboration of it in terms of love and fear in relationships, and an explanation of how it expands the original four self and other listening perspectives appears in Terrifying Transferences (2000).
Relationship inhibitions are considered extensively as they affect our minds and bodies in The Seven Deadly Fears (Hedges and Hilton, in press).
The terms “pocket,” and “pervasive” are attributed to Dr. Joyce Hulgas who is credited with many formulations regarding identification and treatment that appear in Working the Organizing Experience (Hedges, 1994c).
Hedges (1994a,c) speaks of the “mimical self,” an early ego structure based on imitation or primary identification (A. Balint, 1943). Winnicott (1952) speaks of the “false self” based on conformity to (maternal) expectation or demand.
Howard Bacal is credited with the term “optimal responsiveness” (1998). Hedges (1998) addresses the problem of optimal responsiveness to the organizing experience.