Yin, Yang, and Therapy



Written by David O'Donohue, Clinical Psychologist

Originally published: 16-03-2024

Last updated: 17-05-2024



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This post is several thousand words long. If you aren't sure whether you would like to read this much, I have created a summary of this post to assist you.

"All of us learn soon enough, from the unpredictable nuances of each therapy relationship into which we extend ourselves, how pale are even our most elegant and satisfying formulations next to the mystery that is human nature" - Nancy McWilliams, Psychoanalytic Diagnosis

"The way that can be spoken is not the true way" - Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

These quotes imply that no matter how complex a therapeutic model is, it can't account for the complex and complete reality of human experience. It may even be that the more complex a model is, and the more it can explain about a particular person or a particular experience, the less helpful it will be for others, or in general.

In this post I would like to talk about the concept of yin and yang, some related concepts from Toaism, and how these concepts can be useful as an intuitive guide to understanding and navigating much more complex, emergent scenarios.

I also would like to propose that many therapeutic paradigms are consistent with this intuitive guide.

Without getting too deeply into how we might define mental health, most approaches (in my opinion), from psychodynamic to CBT, propose (in different words): that mental health is related to suffering; that suffering, distinct from the pain of living in reality, can be thought of as additional pain that is created in the mind; and that suffering is caused by a rejection of reality, which can be either attachment to a fantasy, or a belief or way of thinking which distorts reality. Many approaches often directly or indirectly propose that people distort reality to avoid one or more emotions, often because the arising of that emotion during that person's childhood led to the child being punished or neglected.

So it appears that I am suggesting that people might (consciously or unconsciously) reject reality to gain control over their emotions. I think it would be helpful to look at some examples of this. I also think it's important to ask, what causes people to continue to reject reality into their adulthood? And, perhaps most importantly, what do they need in order to accept reality?

Surely people would like to reduce their suffering. There is a lot of time, effort, and money spent on reducing suffering, but so much of it seems to not work or, worse, to backfire. Why does this happen?

One of the core ideas of Taoism is that striving for a particular outcome can often paradoxically lead to, or promote, the opposite. To understand this, let's look at the concept of yin and yang.

Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang is a concept which attempts to assist us in understanding a relationship between two things which create, define, or sustain each other.

Everything that exists is brought into existence by something, and the concept of yin and yang implies that this relationship is circular and self sustaining, rather than linear. For example, children turn into adults, and adults create children. Overgrown bushes create bushfires, which provide the necessary conditions for dormant seeds to sprout. A clear sky over water creates the conditions for evaporation, leading to a storm, and a storm clears the skies and returns water to the earth.

How does this relate to therapy?

Patterns of relational dynamics

Have you ever noticed that people often end up in relationships or friendships with people similar to a parent, or playing a role similar to the one they played as a child? A person who was mistreated by their parents as a child may end up dating people who mistreat them. A person who looked after their parents as a child may end up looking after people as a grown up. A person who was picked on and bullied as a child may end up in lots of conflict and fights as an adult. A person who was neglected as a child by emotionally distant parents may end up with someone who is neglectful and emotionally distant. A child who grew up in an environment where there was a lot of comparison and competition between the siblings may end up in a career that involves a lot of comparison and competition.

This may all be a coincidence. But if it's not, it means that being in a particular relationship dynamic during childhood has some sort of effect on that person, and perhaps it is precisely this effect which causes them to recreate the same relationship dynamics throughout their life.

During childhood, we are dependent on our caregivers. This means that we can't elect to leave the relationship, or even choose to get some space. If our caregivers respond to our emotions in unhelpful ways, we can either continue to have authentic emotional reactions to an uncertain reality, making things worse for ourselves, or we can find some stability and certainty by controlling our emotional reactions through rejecting reality.

The way we do this depends on our temperament, and on what sort of emotional reactions we need to control.

A child who is treated poorly, but even worse when they are angry or sad, needs a way to not feel angry or sad. When the child believes they deserve their treatment, they can become numb to it, and avoid aggravating their caregiver even further. They can gain a sense of control if they believe the problem is with them. They may also hold onto hope for the future by developing an idealised image of being treated well.

As an adult, this person may just be in the habit of believing they deserve mistreatment, but I think this is rarely the case. The idea that they didn't deserve mistreatment might be confronting - it might mean that they start to grieve for the way they have been treated. Perhaps that feels too scary, especially if all of their experiences of emotion have been overwhelming and distressing, or if they have successfully recreated their childhood relationship dynamics in their adult life.

They may also fear the uncertainty that might come from letting go of the idea that they deserve mistreatment. If we expect to be mistreated and then are mistreated, it is something we can deal with on our own terms, rather than being shocked by being unexpectedly mistreated. Letting go of the idea that they deserve to be mistreated may mean being vulnerable to that shock.

If they believe that they deserve to be mistreated, their idealised image of being treated well remains possible. They just need to figure out what they are doing to deserve mistreatment. The idea that they don't deserve mistreatment, and that the world is unpredictable and unfair, demolishes this idealised image, which may be an important source of hope.

If letting go of this idea is so scary, perhaps a small part of them wants to hold onto the idea, perhaps even wants to be mistreated, to keep the grief, anger, sadness, and shock at bay, and to protect their idealised fantasy.

This adult might therefore be quite uncomfortable around people who don't consistently mistreat them. If they start to question the idea that they don't deserve to be mistreated, or change their expectations about how they will be treated, they are vulnerable to the grief (of how they have been treated, and their future without their ideal), the anger, the sadness, and the shock - they are vulnerable to their authentic reactions to an uncertain and unfair reality, which they have learnt are dangerous. It can feel much safer to stick with the "I deserve to be mistreated" feeling, which might be numbness, hopelessness, or heaviness, but at least it is expected, manageable, and controllable, and at least it preserves their sense of hope and empowerment.

The idealised image in their mind may be threatened by the realisation that everyone has the capacity to hurt someone, either intentionally or unintentionally. The idealised image of a purely nurturing relationship may provide a sense of hope, and a sense that this person can retain their certainty about how they are treated, but that they be treated positively. So, in addition to protecting the idea that they deserve to be mistreated, this person may also try to protect the ideal image through polarised thinking (black and white thinking). They may idealise certain relationships or interactions, at least until the first sign of mistreatment, which they may be hypervigilant to. They may then judge the relationship as harmful and write it off completely. The alternative would be to abandon their idealised image and accept that there is going to be conflict in any relationship, but this would also mean abandoning the idea that they are protected against uncertainty, or against the shock of unexpected mistreatment.

We can see that this person is working very hard internally to protect themselves from vulnerability. There are many ways this can lead to recreating the dynamic they may fear being vulnerable against. They may unconsciously want to hold onto the idea that they deserve to be mistreated, and feel more comfortable around people who mistreat them. They may be hypervigilant to signs of mistreatment, and polarise to the extent that every realistic relationship is judged as harmful. They may even elicit mistreatment from others purely through their expectations.

Expectations

If the placebo effect means that our expectations can cause physiological changes in our body, it makes sense to suggest that our interpersonal expectations can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. If this is true, then we can view expectation and interpersonal dynamic as two parts of a spiral. Experiencing an interpersonal dynamic can cause us to expect similar things from future relationships. Coming to a relationship with an expectation may bring about what is expected.

Being thought of as intelligent can improve your performance (this is called the Pygmalion effect). The "researcher allegiance effect" means that results are more likely to go the way the researcher expects them to. In a remarkable collaboration between a researcher who believed in psychic abilities and one who did not, the participants tested by the researcher who believed in psychic abilities displayed them, while the participants tested by the other researcher did not (Wiseman, R., & Schlitz, M. (1997). Experimenter effects and the remote detection of staring. Journal of Parapsychology, 61 (3), 197-208). Could this perhaps be part of the reason that CBT has so much evidence - because academics, the ones doing the research studies, people who may happen to enjoy teaching and being logical, might also resonate with a therapeutic approach that involves teaching people how to be logical?

How would this work with the above example? To understand how someone might elicit mistreatment through their expectations, we first have to understand how and why someone would be hostile in the first place. I don't think there is a universally agreed upon answer to this, but my observation is that this happens in one of two ways: a person is hostile towards someone who has hurt them first (even if the first person was unaware of this); or someone who has been hurt elsewhere takes out their feelings on a new person.

In our example, if it is true that expectations and defences against vulnerability can create self-fulfilling prophecies, we can focus on the first situation (the person elicits mistreatment by mistreating others, possibly without intention or awareness, or the person lulls others into mistreating them without being aware they are doing so). Let's say we are in the mind of someone who is protecting themselves from the vulnerability of being unexpectedly mistreated by holding onto the idea that they deserve to be mistreated, and protecting themselves from uncertainty by holding onto the idealised image of a purely nurturing relationship. We know that they are hypervigilant to being mistreated, may idealise early relationships, and are quick to label relationships as harmful. Expecting to be mistreated may cause them to be self-sacrificing. In the early stages of a relationship, they may be good at quickly creating strong emotional bonds, making people feel seen, appreciated, and respected. They may be very generous and accommodating. However, this self sacrificing approach may lead to a build up of resentment. It may also lead to the other person becoming accustomed to this person not having needs at all.

There are a few ways this can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy. The person may become resentful and instigate conflict, which may cause hostility. The person may be so accommodating that others are unaware of their needs and accidentally harm them. They may be hypervigilant to signs of mistreatment and then write the relationship off as harmful.

A person on the receiving end of this may feel quite hurt if they are suddenly made to feel as though they are of no value at all, or accused (seemingly out of the blue) of being abusive. They may also start to expect the person in the example to expect them to mistreat them (and it can continue getting even more reflexive). This may cause them to feel a sense of hopelessness, that their actions will be interpreted as mistreatment anyway, so why bother holding back. They may also get frustrated at the volatile and unfair nature of the relationship. They may feel mistreated by the accusations of being abusive, causing them to become defensive or hostile.

Side note: I feel like this may be taken as some form of "victim blaming" by some people. I don't believe this is the case. I see this more as "survivor empowering". I don't believe that anyone deserves to be mistreated, and I don't blame anyone. But the reality of our lives is that we cannot control the behaviour of others, we cannot control reality, and reality is often unfair. As such, any improvement in the way we are treated has to be through looking at what we can do differently. Not through a lens of regret, shame, guilt, judgement, or self-criticism, but through a lens of curiosity, compassion, and openness. I also don't want these ideas to be used to support gaslighting, because many people who are abusive do tend to blame the people they abuse. If you are experiencing abuse, please contact a crisis or emergency service before starting to think about whether the way you are being treated has anything to do with who you choose to keep in your life, or what sort of reactions you elicit through defence mechanisms.

This is just one example. It may not happen this way. There may be other expectations we bring to relationships which cause us to, in vastly differing ways, recreate previous relationships.

We can see in this example that the harder we try to protect ourselves from vulnerability to a particular interpersonal dynamic, the more we may unintentionally recreate this interpersonal dynamic. What does this have to do with ancient Chinese philosophers, again?

The paradox of Yin and Yang

I think the concept of yin and yang has even more to add than just the recognition that there are cyclical relationships in many places. Yin and yang aren't just arbitrary, interchangeable parts of a cycle, they each have their own definition and complex relationship to each other. Yin is defined as feminine, soft, receptive, dark, passive, cold, flexible, yielding, relaxed, and slow. Yang is defined as masculine, hard, productive, light, active, warm, inflexible, firm, excited, and fast. Both were seen as necessary in the right context, in the way that the yin receptive space of a cup is only useful when surrounded by the firm yang of the cup's material, and a completely solid yang cup without a receptive yin space would be not useful for purpose.

Why should we care about the specifics of yin and yang, or how each is defined, or their complex interdependency? This complex interdependency points to a paradox - yin turns into yang, but also, within yin is a core of yang. This means that in some ways, yin can be more yang than yang is, and vice versa. It also means that the receptive calm of yin may invite and invigorate the active yang, and the overactive yang may exhaust itself and collapse into yin.

This concept is illustrated in chapter 36 of the Tao Te Ching, where Lao Tzu said that "the soft and weak overcome the hard and strong". This idea is further expanded in chapter forty three:

"The softest thing in the universe
Overcomes the hardest thing in the universe.
That without substance can enter where there is no room.
Hence I know the value of non-action.

Teaching without words and work without doing
Are understood by very few."

The same point is made again in chapter seventy six:

"A man is born gentle and weak.
At his death he is hard and stiff.
Green plants are tender and filled with sap.
At their death they are withered and dry.

Therefore the stiff and unbending is the disciple of death.
The gentle and yielding is the disciple of life.

Thus an army without flexibility never wins a battle.
A tree that is unbending is easily broken.

The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome."

and again in chapter seventy eight:

"Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows this,
Yet no one puts it into practice.
Therefore the sage says:
He who takes upon himself the humiliation of the people is fit to rule them.
He who takes upon himself the country's disasters deserves to be king of the universe.
The truth often sounds paradoxical."

When we strive to be productive, we can set off hastily and do a bunch of useless or counterproductive things, and be less productive than if we had been more patient and developed a better understanding of what needs doing, how, and why. When we strive to be too active, we can deprive ourselves of enough recovery, and end up burning ourselves out. The tale of the tortoise and the hare is based on this principle. The US Navy seals say that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. The more we strive for a magic bullet to end our suffering, the more we suffer. The more logical we are, the closer we get to the bedrock of axioms which are paradoxically irrational. The general form of this idea is that the more we strive for a particular thing, the more we invite the opposite of that thing. Could it be possible that the more we cling to a defence (yang) against our vulnerability to a specific interpersonal dynamic, the more we invite that interpersonal dynamic (yin)?

Emotional avoidance as a cycle

We can see how striving to protect ourselves from vulnerability to an interpersonal dynamic may unintentionally or unconsciously invite that dynamic, but one of the elegant things about the concept of yin and yang is that everything can be considered a cycle, even the parts of a cycle. This means that the beliefs maintaining emotional avoidance, which may be part of the cycle of repeating relational dynamics, may also form a cycle themselves. If it is true that humans evolved emotions to help us survive and thrive, it makes sense to say that every emotion has a helpful function. If we suppress an emotion, we aren't changing reality or the need for that emotion, and so that emotion may start to build up on some level.

For example, anger helps us to correct injustice. If we feel free to feel and express anger, we can correct those injustices, or learn that we are powerless and grieve. If we don't allow ourselves to feel or express anger, we don't get to release or grieve the emotion, and so it may build up over time. After a while, it may become so intense that we cannot contain it anymore. When that happens, we can take all of our anger, not just the anger about our current situation, and direct it towards our current situation. This usually results in us feeling that we have overreacted, or that we are an "angry person", and confirming the idea that anger is bad and we should not express it.

Putting it into the terms of the yin and yang paradox, we might say that the more we try to control (yang) the way we think/feel/act, the more we invite an intense or inappropriate outburst (yin) which leads to exactly the outcome we were trying to avoid in the first place.

Side note: this may sound similar to Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, in that there is a thesis (belief in suppressing emotion), an antithesis (opposing belief, that the emotion doesn't need to be suppressed), and instead of the two coming together to create a synthesis (a more comprehensive belief which captures both points of view, perhaps that early and appropriate expression of the emotion is possible), there is instead alternating between thesis and antithesis. This similarity may be because, in developing Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, Marsha Linehan drew on her intuition, and on Zen Buddhism. When Buddhism initially travelled to China, it mingled with Taoism and Confucianism and became Chan Buddhism, which was then taken to Japan to become Zen Buddhism. So the common factor here is Taoism.

So far I have suggested that we can use the concept of yin and yang to understand how a person's early relationship dynamics might invite a defence against vulnerability to those dynamics (which can take many different forms), and that this defence can paradoxically shape the present into an image of the past, which then of course invites the defence. I have also suggested that beliefs which lead to emotional avoidance may also form a cycle of suppression leading to outburst, which leads back to suppression. How can we stop this?

Wu Wei

The ancient Chinese philosophers also had a concept called Wu Wei. There are many disagreements about what Wu Wei actually means, as it was originally written about in ancient Chinese. The symbol for Wu (無) means no, not, don't, nobody, or not yet. The symbol for Wei (為) means to make, to do, to govern, to construct, to become, or to act. So there is a negation word, and a word for something that seems to align with the concept of yang. Wu Wei is often translated as non-action, non-doing, or effortless action, and this is interpreted by some as being in a flow state. My inclination is for a different interpretation. Lao Tzu said "know the masculine, but stick to the feminine". In the examples of paradoxical outcomes above, all which start with yang backfire, while all which start with yin have pleasant outcomes. In the cycle of interpersonal dynamics there is some element of protecting the self from those dynamics, leading to those dynamics being recreated. In the cycle of emotional avoidance itself, there is some element of protecting the self from the outcome of an emotion, and in doing so making that outcome more likely.

So maybe we could interpret Wu Wei in a different way. Perhaps it is true that, at least in some instances, striving for a particular outcome invites a paradoxical unintended outcome, and so "non-doing" may mean that we stop the striving which backfires. Instead of striving to protect ourselves from vulnerability to a particular interpersonal dynamic and ending up recreating that dynamic, perhaps we can allow ourselves to be open and vulnerable to the present moment. Instead of striving to suppress the thoughts and feelings which arise, and in doing so unintentionally neglect the underlying need that thought or feeling is trying to address to such a degree that it comes out in exactly the destructive way we were striving to prevent, perhaps we can be welcoming and curious about them.

Perhaps, we can be open to the reality that exists, open to our authentic emotional reactions, open to being vulnerable and open to finding some middle ground where we can acknowledge and respect our diverse needs.

Since there are paradoxes everywhere, there is also the paradox where striving not to strive may itself backfire, and turn into suppression. How can we stop striving without striving not to strive? If we are aware of our thoughts, feelings, behaviours, and develop insight into the outcomes, we can start to see patterns in our lives, which can naturally lead to us letting go of striving, rather than trying to force ourselves not to strive.

This is easier said than done, though, especially when a lot of this happens outside of our awareness.

Transference and countertransference

If we can influence our relationship dynamics through our expectations and defences, it makes sense that this applies to a relationship with a therapist as well. This is called transference. If those expectations and defences lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy by eliciting a reaction that naturally leads to the dynamic that is being defended against, it would make sense that the therapist may have some sort of emotional reaction to the client. This is called countertransference. Understanding how the therapeutic relationship is being impacted by transference and countertransference can be very useful in understanding how the client has been treated, how the client may be defending themselves, what the client's interpersonal expectations are, and any ways that the client may be recreating their past interpersonal dynamics.

Paradox in therapy

In addition to the paradoxes in the client's experience, there are also some paradoxes in therapy. If therapy can help reduce the suffering that is caused by the rejection of reality that happens when we construct defences against vulnerability to interpersonal dynamics, and if these defences involve avoiding emotions, people who have developed these defences may be more inclined to attend therapy looking for strategies to avoid emotions even more. The idea that therapy is about reducing or eliminating emotions is unfortunately often supported by the medical model of therapy, GPs, psychiatrists, and pharmaceutical companies.

At the same time, this instinct makes a lot of sense given the client's experiences. If therapists strive too hard to encourage the client to get in touch with their feelings, or become vulnerable, perhaps they aren't giving enough respect to their instinct to avoid feeling and protect themselves. If therapists judge the client's defences, distortions, and fantasies as bad, without acknowledging or exploring the value they may be bringing up the client, the therapist may be polarising themselves, which may not be helpful in assisting the client to stop polarising and see the good and the bad of their defences and their emotions.

But if the instinct to avoid feeling is the root of all of the problems (at least, the problems that therapy can help with), it doesn't make sense for therapists to work with the client to avoid feeling either (although unfortunately this does sometimes happen).

I think what is left for therapists is validation and acceptance of the client's instinct to avoid emotion, while simultaneously being attuned, validating, and accepting of the emotions themselves. This feels more receptive, rather than striving in one direction or the other.

Takeaways

We have seen how there can be strong reasons for holding onto a belief or expectation which distorts reality, and that there are ways in which we protect the belief or respond to the expectation that recreate the original dynamic which necessitated the belief or expectation in the first place. We may be protecting ourselves from the grief that may arise when we reflect on the unfair ways we have been treated. We may be trying to protect ourselves from uncertainty and vulnerability by telling ourselves it was our fault in some way, which can make us feel empowered to prevent it. We may be trying to protect our hope of an idealised future by discounting any realistic relationships.

None of this is simple or straightforward, and it's no wonder there is so much resistance, ambiguity, and feelings of being stuck or going backwards in therapy. Instead of laying out a standardised set of ideas or instructions and having people follow them, or just telling them to stop believing something, it's more like going inside someone's mind and playing Jenga with all of the conscious or unconscious beliefs, instincts, associations, expectations, fantasies, and defences, some of which may be flexible and easily changed, others of which may be held in place with strong emotions, or reinforced by the client's current environment.

If we can start to recognise the complex interdependency between our past interpersonal dynamics, our expectations, and our defenses, we can begin to break free from the unconscious recreation of our past experiences in our present relationships. We can see how we have been locked in place by our experience of an interpersonal dynamic, and by certain defences against vulnerability to that interpersonal dynamic, which continuously reinforce each other. We can find a way to open ourselves up to the uncertainty and emotion that comes when we let go of those defences. We can give ourselves permission to be vulnerable. As Rumi said, “your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

If we recreate the interpersonal dynamics we expect, we can perhaps start to expect a different interpersonal dynamic, one which is more accepting of authentic emotional reactions, by developing a therapeutic alliance with a therapist. If the therapist is able to observe the expectations the client is bringing to the relationship, and able to observe their own emotional reactions without instinctively acting on them, this can create new outcomes and provide new insights. We can also vividly imagine someone stepping in during pivotal moments in our childhood, giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable, open, and authentic, and allowing ourselves to expect a different interpersonal dynamic (this is called imagery rescripting). We can identify our defences (with or without a therapist's help), understand them, and start to let them go. We can slow down the cycle by creating some space between our past and our present, rather than imposing our past on our present with expectations, and defences against the vulnerability associated with those expectations.

A therapist might be able to assist in creating this interpersonal dynamic, or in identifying and supporting the release of the defences, but this is not the only path forward. By cultivating self-awareness, self-compassion, a willingness to engage in honest self-inquiry, and a willingness to feel and be vulnerable, we can begin to reshape our internal and relational dynamics.

What do we expect from others, and of ourselves? How does this change how we interpret things, how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves? Are there things we feel that we need to believe? Are there things we feel that we couldn't possibly believe? What might happen if those beliefs were to change - what would we feel? Would we be able to cope with that feeling? Are we avoiding uncertainty, vulnerability, or emotion by telling ourselves things we couldn't possibly know? Are we aware of all of the ways we avoid feeling vulnerable, and the effects of each of those ways?

I think the framework in this article is consistent with a number of different therapeutic paradigms. There is the identification of beliefs and perpetuating factors from CBT, there is acceptance of reality from ACT, there is the unburdening of the pain a part of us is carrying through witnessing and self-compassion from IFS, there is radical acceptance and the integration of thesis and antithesis from DBT, there is imagery rescripting from schema therapy, there is a focus on emotion from emotion-focused therapy, and there is the identification and release of defence mechanisms from psychodynamics.

I think it's quite possible that, since all therapeutic approaches are aimed at the same thing (human suffering), perhaps they are all looking at different parts of the same process, and using different names for each of the parts. Here is a simple model to allow us to understand and explore the rich complexity of each person's reality, as well as how our interventions and efforts may backfire.

But wait, if striving often backfires, does striving to come up with an intellectual understanding of mental health backfire? Here we have another paradox, in that this intellectual understanding of mental health might take us further away from the experience and acceptance of emotions, which is what this understanding tells us is most important.

This demonstrates how easy it is to go down the path of striving, and to lose sight of how it may backfire.

The simple idea behind this post is that things may form interdependent cycles, and that striving may backfire. I have found this idea useful in understanding how people alternate between suppression and outburst, and how people recreate relationship dynamics from their childhood. I have also found this idea useful in taking a more receptive stance. This receptive stance as a therapist means trying to understand the client's experience, listening to what they are saying and what they are communicating (consciously or unconsciously) beyond what they are saying, avoiding bringing my own agenda or pushing the client, observing any cycles or patterns in the client's life and how they may arise in the therapeutic relationship, understanding the value of the symptoms, what necessitated them, and why they still feel important, and understanding the resistance to the symptoms in the same manner.

A more impactful way of framing the idea in this post is, if what a person wants most is what they have been deprived of, and if protecting ourselves from the vulnerability of this paradoxically can end up promoting it, then it makes sense to say that a person may be unconsciously and unintentionally preventing themselves from receiving the thing they want most, through their attempts to avoid vulnerability.


Here is a dot-point summary:



Extra examples

Just one example isn't very convincing. Here are a few more brief examples. I hope to add to or refine these over time.

If we expect someone to dislike us, we may try to protect ourselves from the hurt and embarrassment of this by acting cold, defensive, aloof, or actively demonstrating a dislike for the other person. The result is often that the person ends up not liking us.

If we grew up in an environment where tasks didn't get done correctly or at all unless we were in control or did the tasks ourselves, we might go through life expecting this to happen, and being hyper vigilant to tasks not getting done the way we want them to. Others may notice that we have usually already thought of everything, or done everything really well. Others may notice that when they try to do a task, we are critical of the way it was done, and re-do it ourselves. They may start to expect that we will do things ourselves, that we prefer it that way, and that doing something for us will just cause conflict, leading them to do less for us, and to forget how to do things the way we want them to. The end result is that we have recreated a situation where tasks won't get done correctly or at all, unless we are in control. At times we might long for someone to take care of tasks for us, but without having done this in the past we may become quickly irritated by their perceived incompetence.

If we have been let down a lot in the past, we may come to expect that we will continue to be let down. We may stop communicating our preferences or needs. This can lead to us being let down. We may begin to carry around a lot of frustration and resentment that we have been let down so much, and redirect this towards people who are trying to help us in the present, as we may expect them to let us down and abandon us. This hostility may push them away, causing them to let us down and abandon us. We may hold and protect an idealised image of being helped, compared to which everything feels like being let down. We may also manage our authentic reactions by telling ourselves we can't be helped, and actually feeling helped may challenge this belief which feels important, causing us to protect this belief by (consciously or unconsciously) rejecting or preventing ourselves from receiving help. This complex relationship with "being helped" may appear often in the context of therapy, which can add another level of complexity - how can we help someone who is unconsciously working hard to not be helped? What would help look like?