I recently came across a glossary of key terms related to Relational-Cultural theory put out by the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute (JBMTI). One of them, “Traumatic Disconnection”, really stood out to me. Here is their definition:
Disconnections that occur when what might be an acute disconnection triggers someone (often suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder) into a place of reactivity (the amygdala hijack) where she or he becomes unavailable to relational repair. The person cannot come back into connection because of a heightened sense of danger. Until safety can be reestablished, the therapist must honor the client’s dramatic return to strategies of disconnection. Ironically, these traumatic disconnections sometimes follow an increase in closeness, a relinquishing of strategies of disconnection. In those moments the client feels increased vulnerability and may have to resort to old ways of self-protection.
What struck me the most about this is how salient this particular experience has been for myself and other members of our system as we’ve gone through therapy. Looking back, I can very clearly see this pattern in our behaviors. In fact, when I re-examine the very last session I had with Zooey before she terminated treatment, I can see how it was essentially dominated by this feeling of traumatic disconnection. Here is how I described that experience to her in my termination letter:
When you asked me if I felt that you were a part of this and invested in it, I panicked and I lied. The truth is that I have always felt your presence along this journey. I have always believed you were invested in me and in my treatment. But in that moment, the fear of enmeshment was absolutely suffocating. The transference was so strong, in fact, that at moments I thought my mother was actually in the room. And I wanted to hurt her. I wanted to say awful things that would make her feel terrible. But instead, I hurt you and I said awful things to you. Then I was taken aback at how personally you seemed to take it. And then when I realized I had actually hurt you, I just shame-spiraled even further downward. By that point, I just did not know how to recover the session.
I obviously wasn’t as clear, succinct, or eloquent as the definition given by JBMTI, but I think the connection is fairly obvious. Here I was, feeling like this woman really cared about me and was truly invested in me, my treatment, and my happiness. Of course that would cause me (and others) to emotionally recoil, lash out, and put up walls between her and us. I was trying to protect myself and the system from what we assumed (from repeated experience) to be the inevitable next step – betrayal. It was never about her or about how any of us felt about her. It was simply a matter of feeling triggered by the intimacy of the work we were doing with Zooey and feeling an intense need to protect ourselves.
Unfortunately, the next step was indeed betrayal – since Zooey terminated with us in the following session. Perhaps that was just bad timing, but I think you can see how the connection could easily be made between feeling close to someone and getting hurt.
The reason this is helpful to talk about is to see how incredibly normal our response was to treatment. I bring up the connection-betrayal link to illustrate a point, but that is not the entire point of this post. What I want to acknowledge the most, is that Zooey ultimately failed us when she failed to see that what was happening was a textbook example of traumatic disconnection. I can see absolutely no reason why she wouldn’t have come to that conclusion on her own, except that it’s obvious by now that she was buried in clinical shame, insecurity, and helplessness.
Moving forward, however, I plan to use this new information to guide myself, my system, and my treatment. It’s okay for us to be afraid when we start to feel close and trusting of our clinicians. It is not our job to be perfect clients or to soothe our therapists’ egos. It is, however, their job to recognize what is a predictable and understandable reaction to building the therapeutic relationship.
This doesn’t make the pain and grief of what happened with Zooey go away. But it does make it just a little bit easier to accept.