Małgorzata Bielak – psychologist, psychotherapist and supervisor of cognitive-behavioural and pattern psychotherapy. She works in Warsaw in both the Cogito Centre and online.
What is pattern therapy?
It is a type of cognitive-behavioural therapy which assumes that in the first contact with another human being we represent either a Healthy Adult – and hopefully this is the case – or a part of our personality which is called the Defender. For example, I’d call you the Curious Poser of Questions, and as a psychologist, I also use this mode. In our work, the Defender – curious about the other person, focused on them, smiling – is performing their function well. The problem appears when we start to function this way in every context. If we don’t show our sensitive side in a relationship, it is difficult to achieve real closeness. Pattern therapy teaches how to achieve a closeness to others, because only then is a real bond possible.
Do I understand correctly: my Defender is my journalistic workshop, the questions I ask you and my smile? And the sensitive part is the fear that the questions will be stupid, the interview will not work out... Right?
But this sensitive part is also your authentic curiosity about the subject and the joy of the conversation.
And where’s the Healthy Adult in all this?
Your Curious Poser of Questions works well in an interview situation. But if this attitude were to dominate in everyday life, it would be difficult for you to have a real closeness in your relationships. I hope that the part which I call the Healthy Adult, allows you to push aside the Curious Poser of Questions, in a situation with friends or in a relationship. I hope that you can talk about yourself then, show your true self and show your sensitivity.
So after the interview I’m going to go to my wife, as we’re both working from home, and tell her that I’m not feeling well and I’m going to lie down?
That’s a start. But, Wojtek, not everyone can do this. Some people will go to their wife and continue to contact her through their Defender, e.g. the narcissist who’ll tell her how great he was during the interview and won’t mention anything about his well-being because he’ll be afraid to do so.
How do you know I don’t have a Narcissistic Defender?
If you did, you would start the conversation by enumerating your journalistic achievements, and not by being curious about the subject. And the shelf behind you would not be full of books but of prizes in journalism.
According to the classification of Defenders in the book “Emotional Traps in Relationships” my wife is an Excessively Controlling Perfectionist…
I’m glad that you can see this yourself. This confirms that the pattern therapy is understandable and can be applied in real life. There are more of these modes, so what else can you tell me about your wife?
She has the sense that when she agrees on something with me, she still has to make sure that I do it. It’s annoying, but unfortunately she’s right. Because if she doesn’t check on me, I forget things, for example, like taking an important bag for a family trip, which I did last time.
That’s why you have a wife who remembers it. Couples form to complement each other so that there is some kind of chemistry. Opposites attract. Such relationships work well for years. This can change when, for example, children grow up and we are left alone. When this happens, it would be great to loosen up both strategies. Your wife would have to let go off her perfectionism a little, and you’d have to try harder by taking more notes. If your Healthy Adult decides this is important that is.
He’s already decided, I’ve installed an application containing my daily schedule. And where do these patterns come from?
From the principle: we like what we know. Patterns and modes are created during childhood and adolescence and in our interaction with parents, although temperament also plays an important role. When it comes to siblings brought up with a violent father, where the boy has an aggressive temperament and the girl is withdrawn, the boy will often develop the Attacking Defender, and his sister will develop a different coping style and use, for example, a Defender Focused on Others.
This is quite obvious in a family with the pathology of violence. But what patterns develop in non-pathological homes?
An overprotective mother who told her son to wash his hands 10 times because there are germs everywhere, to be careful when crossing the street and who escorted him to school until he was 15, could help him build a pattern of vulnerability to injury. It may be dormant, and only a situation like this pandemic might activate it, anxiety then appears and attention is focused on threats.
So the children who are panicking the most now have overprotective mothers?
Not necessarily. For example, a person with a “doomed to failure pattern”, lacking self-confidence, may also react with great anxiety.
What’s the best Defender mode?
Flexible, because any of them can be useful, depending on the situation. Even the Attacking Defender can be useful, for example when someone physically attacks us. However, if we use this mode most of the time, our social relationships will suffer.
During therapy, we help patients build a Healthy Adult. So that we can choose which mode to use in which situation.
So we have all the patterns now. Could I ask for at least one example?
A woman in her forties came with the problem that her partner doesn’t want to make a marriage commitment, or even a permanent relationship commitment, and is addicted to alcohol. And she is not able to make the decision to break up or accept the way things are.
This is a pattern of emotional deprivation. It builds up when our parents didn’t give us enough attention, care or tenderness. In adult life, people with such experiences have a great tolerance for being in relationships where they do not experience these important things. That’s because what is known to us, although unpleasant, is easier to accept and attractive to us.
So, what do we do next? It is necessary to reach back and work with the memories that lie behind such a pattern. This is not magic, but intervention techniques with proven effectiveness. We work on such situations, but by changing how they play out.
I don’t quite follow.
We reach a given memory to change its emotional load. Let me give you an example: as a little girl, my patient brought home a school certificate with straight As. She tried to show it to her to mother, but she was very busy cooking dinner, looking after her younger brother and her father when he returned home. The patient remembers herself standing next to her mother and pulling on her skirt, but her mother kept pushing her away with her hand.
In pattern therapy, we freeze this scene and the therapist becomes involved in it. I “talk” to the mother, trying to direct her attention to what’s happening to her child. In this situation, the mother did not have bad intentions, this “conversation” was enough for her to put her things aside for a while and focus on her daughter.
The aim of this is to make up for the deficits in attention, closeness and appreciation which form the basis of the patterns.
If this technique works, my patient’s tolerance of the lack of attention from her partner, of the uncertainty of the relationship and of her partner disappearing for a few nights to drink with his buddies will diminish. She will be able to set boundaries for him – and that’s what happened in this story – and if that doesn’t work, break up.
And what’s the point of all this?
The future will show whether this relationship will survive or not. Today she will say she doesn’t want him to disappear for a few days and come back drunk, and he adjusts his behaviour, which is surprising.
I will give my own example now. I know similar situations – women who constantly enter into difficult relationships with men who drink, cheat and humiliate them.
It’s a consolidation of childhood patterns. What can we do about it? We can talk it over with a friend, come to realise it and... jump straight into another relationship like this. Without working on it during therapy, the situations that led to such patterns won’t change anything.
After the quarantine, the psychotherapists will have their hands full.
You’re absolutely right! It will be difficult for people to confront the Defenders in their partners 24 hours a day. This can be explained even biologically: if we treat a situation as a threat, we react to it using the so-called shortened circuit. Our limbic system, the amygdala, takes control while normally, when we have access to our Healthy Adult, we pass our decisions through the frontal cortex, which helps with feeling empathy, enables self-reflection and helps distance ourselves from fear.
Before we finish, may I ask for a happy ending story?
A man, very hard-working, devoted to his family and with a big self-sacrifice pattern has a wife accustomed to luxuries from the beginning of their relationship. He came to my office because he was so overworked that his health had started to deteriorate – his body was already screaming and he could have had the prospect of spine surgery in front of him. But he couldn’t set boundaries either at work or at home because his wife had high demands regarding their standard of living.
We worked on his Defender, who was 90% focused on the needs of his boss or team members at work, and his wife’s at home. I helped him see that he had a sensitive part too and his own needs. His mother was a doctor, his father a social worker, and he had a disabled brother, who consumed most of his parents’ attention. He was “rewarded” when he pushed his needs aside, leaving space for his parents to deal with other things.
The process was difficult, but life circumstances helped because my patient lost his job. He also had to change the way he behaved in the house.
After working with me earlier, he managed to no longer present himself as a super-perfect and self-sacrificing superman, but was able to show his true self, admit that he was unhappy, that he was afraid and that he needed a change on the part of his wife. And she reacted very positively to it, which is not something you see very frequently.
They managed to keep it up when he returned to work. The arrangement in their relationship changed completely because she started working too.
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