transitional objects, the secure base, and the skill of the therapist

In a recent blog I referenced something called “magical thinking.” A colleague who read it asked me to revisit the topic and to focus on concepts in therapy called the secure base and transitional objects.
Establishing a secure base is one of the fundamental goals of therapy. The idea is to create a place where the client feels safe enough with the therapist that they allow themselves to take off many of their masks and look honestly at themselves. In order to create this secure base, the therapist must be experienced as non-judgmental. They cannot represent the critical parent, which many of us have internalized. Most people have created what is sometimes called a parental introject, a sort of miniature critical parent which chastises us when we do, or want to do, what our parents did not want us to do. Sometimes this is referred to as our conscious, but it is more specific than that. At times we are split within ourselves and listening to conflicted messages when we want to do something, but part of ourselves is warning against it. It is like a child who steals candy in the grocery store knowing that they are not supposed to, but do it anyway because of the incredible strength of the impulsive urge. We all deal with temptations and conflicts. One of the ways we defend against them is to create the critical parent who speaks to us when we are impulsive and tells us not to do something. If we do not listen to that voice and do it anyway, the critical parent will scold and nag us in an attempt to punish us.
What we do with this critical parent who is nagging us is project it out onto someone or something else and then get mad at them or it. I might project it onto my wife and then get angry with her for not letting me do what I want to do, or I resent her for punishing me by not letting me go to the movies or play golf. I blame her and her “honey do chores” for not letting me do what I want. We need someone or something, such as work, school, or a spouse to blame for the negative feelings we have. These feeling actually derive from our inner desires that we find unacceptable or shame-based.
Therapists experience this all the time. Clients get mad at them, blame them, and emotionally assault them all in response to the projection of the critical parent onto them. Clients are continually saying: “you will be really mad at me,” or “you will be really upset” or “you will be disappointed” because of something they did or did not do. The challenge for the therapist is not to get sucked into this dynamic. As therapists, we need to recognize the pattern for what it is and help create the secure base so that the client can take these projections out and look at them realistically. They need a safe place to be able to talk about the conflict within them in terms of wanting something they are not “supposed” to want, or feeling something they are not “supposed” to feel. If the therapist does their job well, the client will feel safe in the anchoring support of the therapist. Then they are able to feel secure in taking these feelings out and examining them. The client can look at where the feelings originated. They can also learn to see both sides of a goal or desire. They can safely look at what the negative voices represent. Are they your own voices helping you decide, or are they entrapping voices demanding that you please others, such as your parents or your therapist? The next step may involve questions such as: Why would you want to please these people? What would happen if you did not please them? What do you really want? What will it cost you to get it? How will you feel if you do get it?
Discussing these things generates anxiety. All of our defense mechanisms are in service of containing or eliminating anxiety. We all learn many subtle and powerful coping strategies to protect ourselves from anxiety and one example is the defense mechanism of projection which I have just been discussing. Another is magical thinking such as using something like a pacifier, or a blanket, or a teddy bear when we are young children. These things are called transitional objects. They are surrogate “mothers” which sooth us and make us feel safe and comforted when we are hurt or anxious or lonely. They are very useful tools and we all find some of them in our lives. These are obvious when we look at small children who cannot go to sleep without their transitional object. We clearly see they are comforted by being given the transitional object, which may be their blanket or their teddy.
As we grow older we change our transitional objects. They become somewhat more subtle or disguised. They are not as easily recognized. Examples which you might see would be a lucky coin we carry in our pocket, or a rabbit’s foot, or worry beads or prayer beads that we carry around and stroke when we are distressed. But they can also be other things, like a hat we always wear. We have lucky clothes we save for special occasions when we want things to go very well. Things like a job interview, or a college admissions interview, or asking someone to marry us find us adorned with our magical totems which we secretly hope will carry the day. Even though we “know” in our rational minds that these things are only “things”, they still function to reduce our anxiety. In the extreme form of this defense mechanism, we call these things and behaviors they engender Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. (See blog dated 5/31/11.)
As a therapist, it is possible to use these transitional objects to strengthen a client’s resistance to and defense against anxiety until they have the time and the practice of behaviors which make them stronger and freer to choose. Thereby, they can avoid the internalized critical parent and the anxiety that is generated by their internal conflicts. We can create the secure base in the therapy office so that the client feels anchored and safe. In the office, the client will eventually feel stronger and braver and more willing to look at scary things in order to realize that there is no monster under the bed. They will gradually, in increasing waves of strength, learn to push back the irrational anxiety and to learn self-soothing and self-enhancing behaviors and thoughts which will make them freer and more confident. As a therapist, when I know a client is really struggling against a surge of anxiety I will “create” a transitional object which will connect the client to me and to my office, their safe place. When I go on vacation or we will have to miss a few sessions due to some scheduling conflict, I will offer them a transitional object. This can be anything they will accept which connects them to me when I am not there. Its purpose is the same as the blanket or teddy. It is to help them calm down and be “soothed” as they need when they cannot get to their safe place. Sometimes I offer them a pen that they have seen me use and hold. They can take it with them while we are apart, and when we return, they give it back to me. But while we are apart, whenever they become afraid, anxious, or conflicted, they can take it out and hold it and be reminded of me and of their safe place. We practice visualizing the safe place. We learn cues for mentally being able to imagine being there, as well as, breathing and relaxing. I teach them how to practice being safe by being connected to me and to the office. I do this deliberately when they are fragile and overwhelmed. As they get stronger and more capable of self-reliance, I wean them from this. They are told that they will not need it indefinitely, that the magic is not in me it is in them. I remind them that their strength will make them safe. It is like taking the training wheels off of the bike. As they get stronger they internalize a loving parent, not a critical one. Then they no longer need me or the secure base of my office because they have internalized it into their own strength. This equips them to be better able make the choices they need to make, without anxiety and anger.

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19 Responses to transitional objects, the secure base, and the skill of the therapist

  1. Jon Domachowski says:

    Another great, insightful blog Brett. I am working with a kiddo who just turned two and the power of the transitional object for him (in my case a soft cloth he watched me make for him) is so tremendously powerful. As always, thank you for such rich material Brett.

    Jon

  2. Belkis says:

    Saved, I really like your blog! :)

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  4. Brett Newcomb says:

    I think that is something you have to do from your web site. It is possible you are getting multiple responses due to the multiple comments which have come in from your web site. You might check with the others there who have found my site. Thank you for your interest.

  5. Brett Newcomb says:

    It would be interesting to know what specifically your objections are to what I have written. Thank you for your interest and your comment. I would like to hear more.

  6. blue quaker parrot for sale Very good blog you have here but I was curious about if you knew of any forums that cover the same topics talked about in this article? I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get responses from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Cheers!

  7. Zem says:

    I was curious if you were using the transitional objects with children or with adults in therapy? interested in their use with adults and if it fosters too much dependence or can be helpful

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      I have found it to be very helpful in the early stages of therapy with adults. It is somewhat regressive, but it still comforts them in primitive ways to ground them and make them feel safe. One of my goals is to create the safe holding environment and I find that the use of these objects helps them begin to separate and still be able to self soothe. In much the same way that an infant uses a pacifier or a blanket. Similar needs, similar results. Being an adult is not really relevant if the individual is fixated or locked emotionally in an infantile loop of fear and abandonment issues.

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  13. Robin Gordon says:

    Hi Brett,
    I came across this Blog while searching for those who have some knowledge and/or interest in transitional objects. I am a children’s book author and have just completed a book about a little girl who is beginning her first day of kindergarten and wants to take her blankie and puppy with her. Her mother doesn’t think it’s such a great idea! I am seeking people who have some expertise, would like to read the story and possibly be an endorser of the book. Please let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send you a copy. Thanks for considering!

    • Brett Newcomb says:

      Hello Robin, I would be happy to read your book and see what I think. It sounds like a very interesting topic. My wife taught kindergarten for about fifteen years. Would you mind if I asked her opinion of it as well? Brett

  14. That would be wonderful! I’d appreciate her comments as well! The verse follows: Please direct your comment back to my e-mail at rktpeaceful@yahoo.com. If you find that the book would be of value, I’d like your permission to print the comment on the book itself. Thanks for considering.

    Title: Mackenzie and Blankie

    It was one day before
    My first day of school.
    My mom said, “Sophia,
    Do you think that’s cool?”

    “I know that Mackenzie
    Is special to you!
    But school’s not a place
    For your puppy, it’s true!”

    “Her paws and hind legs
    Were almost all gone.
    I stuffed her with cotton
    And sewed her with yarn.”

    “She was missing an ear,
    Must have come off in bed.
    I stitched up the other
    With blue and green thread.”

    “But she’s always been with me
    In good times and bad.
    If I leave her at home
    She’ll really be sad.”

    “While monsters and spiders
    Were creeping at night.
    We snuggled together
    And I held her tight.”

    “She seems pretty brave,
    That pup with one ear.
    Just wrap her in blankie
    And leave her right here.”

    “But blankie will want
    To come along too!
    She’s old and she’s scared
    Of aloneness, it’s true.”

    “Remember when blankie
    Was lost in the park?
    She hid under a bush
    Til we found her at dark.”

    “We’ve talked about blankie,
    She IS getting old.
    Full of holes like Swiss cheese
    There’s not much to hold.”

    “You don’t understand.
    I cannot leave them here.
    Someone will take them.”
    And down came a tear.

    “Sophia, Sophia,
    When will you grow up?
    That blankie’s a mess
    And look at that pup!”

    “There’s almost no stuffing,
    The fur is rubbed off.
    The kids will just tease you.
    They’ll laugh and they’ll scoff.”

    “I knew she was right.
    They were perfect to me.
    But others did not
    Always see what I see”.

    “I’ll be sad, I’ll be scared,
    But I have to be strong.
    I wish puppy and blankie
    Could both come along.”

    “The night before school
    I held puppy tight.
    We cuddled together
    And slept through the night.”

    “When I woke the next morn,
    I kissed them good-bye.
    First blankie, then puppy,
    A tear in her eye.”

    “My mom made me oatmeal
    The kind with blueberries.
    And put my lunch box
    In a backpack with fairies.”

    “Sophie, remember
    Your snack’s in the bag,
    Give these notes to your teacher
    And don’t be a nag.”

    “Wait your turn, be polite,
    And remember to share.
    Try to make a new friend
    With whoever is there.”

    “Both mommy and daddy
    Took me to the bus.
    I went up the big steps
    Without any fuss”.

    “My teacher, Ms. Mitchell,
    She seemed nice enough.
    We played, read some words
    And other fun stuff.”

    “Now children, it’s time
    To rest, take a mat,
    No wigglers or talkers,
    You need to lay flat.”

    “Mackenzie and blankie
    Were both in my head.
    Won’t be able to sleep
    Without them in my bed.”

    “I felt two big tears
    Well up in my eyes.
    Ms. Mitchell said, “Sophie,
    I have a surprise!”

    “If you’ll quietly come
    To the front of the room.
    I’ve a package for you.
    It arrived around noon.”

    “You may keep it with you
    At naptime for rest.
    But keep the bag closed.
    It will be for the best.”

    “The bag was bright yellow
    It looked kind of bumpy.
    She handed it to me
    It felt soft and lumpy.”

    “She walked to the door
    And turned off the light.
    The room filled with darkness.
    My heart filled with fright.”

    “If you’d like to open it
    And take a peek,
    Do it here, do it now
    Without making a squeak.”

    “I loosened the cord
    That held it so tight
    And as soon as I looked
    I knew I’d be alright.”

    Carefully placed,
    Like a hand in a glove
    Were Mackenzie and blankie
    All wrapped up with love.

    Word Count- 615
    Robin L. Gordon
    © 2012
    rktpeaceful@yahoo.com
    678-283-2706

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