I often write about working with rigid Pursuers, but I’ve been struggling more with Withdrawers lately. This surprises me, I usually don’t struggle with Withdrawers. I find many Withdrawers have a rich inner world that comes out fairly quickly once they are given space to talk and some safe evocative questions.
Naturally, though, the more trauma someone has come from, the harder and stranger it could be to access their own emotional world. If someone has come from a family of origin where they were totally on their own with their feelings, and had to cope with some really difficult circumstances alone, that “suppress and deny” coping mechanism will have iron clamps on it.
I came across this passage in Lorrie Brubacher’s new book, and I loved how this was described:
“The avoidant (dismissive) approach ‘includes rapid self-protective responses to danger without examining one’s own emotions, consulting other people or seeking to receive help from them’ (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2016, p. 190). The implicit script is, ‘If I am in distress, I will carry on with other activities,’ (oblivious to anyone else and with a pseudo-positive sense of self).”
Stepping Into Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, p. 51
The words I want to highlight here are:
Rapid – the Withdrawer can suppress their feelings with lightening speed, sometimes feeling genuinely surprised their partner is upset about something they fought about only minutes before.
Without seeking to receive help – their coping is extremely internal, they may not even interact with the feeling themselves. They certainly are not going to go to others with these feelings.
Oblivious to anyone else – as my former individual supervisor used to say, “you can’t selectively numb.” If they are numbing their own feelings, they are also numbing other people’s feelings.
Pseudo-Positive Sense of Self – this one is one of the hardest to work with, for me. Because they genuinely can feel a sense of, “I’m fine, what’s the problem?” Also, can’t my partner just be fine? That would solve everything!
Wouldn’t it be great if we could just give someone psychoeducation on this, and they would get this about themselves, and start to be more aware? I don’t see that happening though, since their coping mechanism for themselves will be what they do with me, push away, minimize, see as not that big of a deal.
The two things I have found useful when dealing with a particularly powerful denial coping mechanism are the following.
1) Slowly, slowly tracking what happens for the Withdrawer. I don’t try to push them toward the feelings, I more approach their world with curiosity. “What is it like not to feel anything? What does detached in the face of all this feel like? What do you do then, when you have all this numbness (looking for action tendency)?”
2) For Withdrawers that stay with, “I just feel numb, or detached,” despite validating and tracking a lot in Step 2, then I might ask, “Right before you go numb, and disconnect from your wife’s anger, what happens inside? What happens the split second before you disconnect?”
I think the biggest part of working with the rare Withdrawer that seems to be living in a ton of denial is not to start pursuing them with the flavor of, “what’s wrong with you for not feeling more?”. So it’s about slowing myself way, way down and being curious. That’s hard to do when their partner is sobbing and making threats about leaving, and I’m wondering if they see the seriousness of the situation, but then we can track the cycle alive in the room. “So this is the cycle, maybe? The more she cries, and tells you how dire this is, the more you go into that cognitive space, and stay calm? Can you tell me more about that?”
Side Rant: Another dimension to learning to work with some male Withdrawers, for me, is fighting this cultural meme of “men are logical, women are emotional.” I expect to hear clients say this, but I heard a couples therapist say this seriously the other week, and it was one of those moments when you hear a record scratch in your head. I don’t think some realize that this is actually a sexist comment. In our culture, “more logical” is a compliment and “more emotional” is not a compliment. Are you irrational and crazy and overreacting? Or can you look at a situation accurately, calmly, and figure out the best next steps? Which sounds better?
Fortunately, we EFT therapists know that emotions ARE logical. EMOTIONS AAAARRREEEE LOOOOOOOGGGICCCCALLL!!!!! In fact, what EFT therapists are especially great at is finding the logic, the reason, that generates the emotion.
*side rant over*