Darren's* story:

 

* Darren’s real name has been changed for confidentiality's sake.

Darren had been working in the entertainment industry in another country and decided he needed to get more education in this area, so moved back to the States and entered a local college that specialized in his field. He was quite anxious, eager to please and was generally very upbeat, but his positive demeanor was a bit forced, and I had an early hunch that he was avoiding much pain and fear underneath. He had been fired in his job in the other country, but talked about that experience in a rather flippant way.

I found in our first session that he had been born to a wealthy family. It sounded like his mother was determined to be loving and supportive, unlike her own parents. She read Dr. Spock and other books on child-rearing, but was very inconsistent in her behavior toward Darren, sometimes being very affectionate to the point of indulgence, at other times hostile and critical. She was also subject to depression and would withdraw to her bedroom for days at a time. Darren felt abandoned and confused at these times, but had trouble recognizing and expressing anger, hurt and fear of abandonment towards her because she was so obviously trying to be a good mother.

His father was a rather passive man, unaware of his emotional life and obviously felt he had to prioritize his wife’s well-being. This resulted in Darren feeling abandoned at times by both parents and feeling that he had to be a “good,” uncomplaining boy to get noticed by them.

In terms of attachment theory, I saw Darren as having an ambivalent attachment style. He was very intelligent and did well in school, but lacked emotional depth. He treated me the way he had learned to behave toward his parents: as cheerful, uncomplaining, and somewhat obsequious.

In my work with long-term clients like Darren, one tack I take is to focus on the ways they relate to me. Darren obviously idealized me and, although I thought that he saw me as wiser and more powerful than I saw myself, I realized that he needed to do so until he began to develop more self-confidence and strength in himself.

During the early years of our work, he focused on two main areas: his difficulty in forming a solid romantic relationship with a woman and his difficulty in progressing in his chosen profession. He tended to form immediate, somewhat unrealistic attachments to beautiful women, particularly with those who were working with him. He would ply them with exotic short vacations in places like Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe, give them expensive gifts, but they did not take him seriously as a potential lover. He complained that they seemed to want to view him like they would an affectionate girl friend. I surmised that, because of his father’s passivity, he had never really learned to be an assertive, self-confident male with women or men in authority. I also sensed that underneath his falsely exuberant behavior, he felt inadequate, unmanly and hurt when women did not attach to him. I did not get a sense that he was gay.

Over time, Darren began to develop an attachment to me. I am usually not very self-revealing with my clients, particularly in the beginning of therapy, but it was clear to me that Darren needed to know more about my life, so I shared with him, when it seemed appropriate, my positive feelings towards him and some details of my own life.

Over time, Darren became more and more trusting of me and I helped him become aware of his loneliness, hurt and feelings of inadequacy. We learned that he was replicating his way of relating to his father with me: denying feelings of pain and inadequacy and criticism of me when he felt it. In one session after we had met for over a year, he revealed he had gotten the impression that I wanted him to be more assertive in his relationships. Because he feared censure from me, he had avoided talking about situations where he realized he should have been more assertive. He recalled many interactions when his father was critical of him for being too passive while, at the same time, modeling sycophantic behavior with his wife. I realized that his perception of me was partially correct and I had to take stock of my own self-judgments when I felt I was being too passive. This was an important session. I explored his fear of my judgment, owned that his fear had some validity and apologized to him. We connected his fears of my reaction to experiences with his father. He spontaneously remembered incidents when he was judged by his Dad for being too passive and he expressed his deep hurt at his father’s criticism of him. He also began to realize that his father was inadvertently hypocritical and felt angry at him for perhaps the first time. He didn’t feel he could express that directly to his father, so I suggested he put his father in an empty chair in front of him and tell his father how he felt. He did that and, although had some difficulty at first, managed to express much of the pain and hurt he had been suppressing for many years. He also began to relate to me in a more open, direct way and felt my caring and support of him. He began to see that he could feel more equal and be more authentic with people, like myself, whom he saw as authority figures.

These sessions were some of the most moving experiences for both of us.

He eventually began to realize that he was not cut out to make a successful career in the entertainment industry. He had been working as a waiter at a high-end restaurant and decided to take his chef-owner’s offer for him to head up a new catering wing of the restaurant. In that job, he supervised and set up the venues, food choices, and decorations at these events. He also put his creative skills to use by creating entertainment for the guests. He also eventually formed a successful relationship with an intelligent, attractive, caring woman and got married a few years later.