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Working with Avoidant Attachment: Critical Internal Objects

When our clients are tortured by self-criticism, we need to step in to protect them. In her penultimate blog about supporting highly defended clients, Attachment-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist Linda Cundy explores our relationships with our punitive superegos – and suggests some ways therapists can help clients to internalise a different kind of voice.

In previous blogs I suggested that the purpose of therapy is to help clients become more ‘secure’, and identified several areas where we can help that process along with our avoidant / dismissing clients. Accessing and expressing emotions, mourning, creating a meaningful and rich self-narrative and understanding the role of defences also contribute to mentalisation – seeing others as complex individuals with their own unique stories – and self-compassion.

These are all hallmarks of secure-autonomous attachment. But defences, including self-sufficiency, arrogance and contempt, are not easily relinquished. Here, I examine the reasons for resistance with some thoughts about how to work with it.

Resistance and critical internal objects

I think it all comes down to the avoidant person’s internal world, populated by highly self-critical, self-hating, self-attacking ‘internal objects’. Memories of being ridiculed, humiliated, and rejected can be used against the self as a form of invisible self-harm – sometimes, hearing how clients speak about themselves feels like a knife twisting in an open wound. People who are very outward-focused and fill their lives with constant activity may not even be aware that they are driven by their punitive superegos.

I have come to think about this attachment to abusive, torturing internal objects as a cry for help. Just as a victim of domestic violence or coercive control may drop hints about his or her nightmare experiences, avoidant individuals hope that someone will see the signs of this abusive relationship and step in to protect them (though they are likely to reject this idea – it’s much too shameful to admit that they are unconsciously seeking help).

I can be pretty challenging when required – “STOP DOING THAT TO YOURSELF. I wouldn’t stand for it if I was working with a couple and one person spoke that way to the other and I won’t have you hurting yourself like this either.”

I often explain that we all have these ‘internal objects’ – they are not evidence of mental illness or being in any way deficient (a deep underlying belief many avoidant people hold about themselves).

But another important point is that, regardless of the self-inflicted but invisible pain, these internal voices inhibit people, preventing them exposing aspects of themselves they expect to be ridiculed by someone else – better to torment oneself than risk opening up to another person who may then humiliate you. The protective function and history of the internal object need to be heard and understood.

Creating new, ‘cheerleading’ internal objects

We all need to protect ourselves, but we also need to encourage, support and enjoy ourselves. And our lives are enriched by closeness with others. For that, we need a different kind of internal object that protects us from too much internal criticism, a voice that speaks up for us. This new ‘secure’ internal presence is created from several sources:

  • The love, respect and praise of people in the client’s world (how easy it is to discount the appreciative things we are told about ourselves – a habit the therapist must challenge)
  • The good experiences the client had with caregivers in earlier life (even if these occasions were few and far between)
  • Awareness of the kind of care our parents wanted to give us but their own attachment difficulties got in the way
  • The client’s legitimate self-respect and sense of achievement (it’s such a joy to hear avoidant clients finally acknowledge that they are clever or talented, or that they’ve succeeded in something they have worked on)
  • And the client’s sense of internalising the therapist, carrying him or her around in the mind as a resource

Where attachment to an internal persecutor seems unshakeable I will challenge: “If you feel you’re such a worthless person, what can you do to be a better person, to earn self-respect? So what’s stopping you?”

It isn’t a matter of surgically removing the critical superego but of turning down the volume, and of having a different internal presence, an introjected secure base to be cheerleader. Our clients need to know that we keep them in mind, and we must find ways to ensure we have taken up permanent residence in their inner worlds.

Next time, in my final blog on Avoidant Attachment, I’ll write about the avoidant therapist.





Linda Cundy

Linda Cundy is an attachment-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, and an independent trainer and writer. She has written / edited three books to date, Love in the Age of the Internet: Attachment in the Digital Era; Anxiously Attached: Understanding and Working with Preoccupied Attachment; and Attachment and the Defence Against Intimacy: Understanding and Working With Avoidant Attachment, Self-Hatred and Shame. She is Attachment Theory Consultant to the Bowlby Centre.

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