Reconnect to your Core
a practical guide on how to feel good and be happy

ISTDP - A Theory of Human Functioning

At the core of human functioning is a striving for human attachment and ultimately love. At the most basic level the attachment instinct increases the likelihood that the infant will survive, since the infant in its state of vulnerability and helplessness is dependent on its caretakers. This instinct is something that’s innate in human beings, meaning it’s something we’re born with which is at the core of our very being.

Patricia Coughlin comments that the attachment instinct results in the child wanting closeness, rapport, and love from its parents. Through the eyes of his parents the child learns how to understand himself, how to understand and view his parents, how the parents views the him, how he ought to view other people in the world, and how other people view him.

Healthy attachment figures will teach the child that his feelings are acceptable, that it’s accepted that his feelings are different than the feelings of his parents and other people, and they will also teach him how to regulate and communicate these feelings in a constructive way.

However, when this attachment is frustrated due to inadequate responses from his parents this results in an emotional chain-reaction of feelings in the child referred to as The generic system of the unconscious (the GSU). It consists of five levels, with our attachment strivings (love) at its core. Below is a recap from Chapter 1 graphically showing the GSU.

The theory of human functioning which the GSU is built on derives from ISTDP (Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy). This is a psychodynamic school of psychology founded by Habib Davanloo which is based on psychodynamic principles originating back to Sigmund Freud. In later years ISTDP has been further developed by Patricia Coughlin, Jon Frederickson, Allan Abbass, Josette ten Have-de Labije, and Robert J. Neborsky among others, and much of the material in this book is based on their work. I highly recommend that you study their material for more thorough understanding of the concepts that follow.

In life a child quickly learns that his loving feelings are not going to be reciprocated to the extent that he would like. He soon understands that he’s not loved unconditionally for who he is, but that he has to do something or restrain himself in order to get his parents’ love, attention, and affection.

As a consequence the child now has to «hide himself» and take on the role that his parents wants him to have. He is therefore no longer able to be spontaneously who he is with his feelings without risking breaking the attachment bond to his parents. On an emotional level he unconsciously understands that his feelings aren’t going to be fully accepted by the ones he loves. The child interprets this as though he himself is being rejected since his authentic Self is not allowed to spontaneously unfold. To come to this unconscious realization causes pain and grief since it hurts deeply to not be allowed to be oneself by the people we love. And for a short period of time the child exists «feeling unloved», and this causes emotional pain.

This emotional pain leads to a counter-reaction in the child. This counter-reaction consists of both rage towards his parents and unconscious guilt due to this rage. These two emotional processes are closely linked. The child feels rage towards his parents because of the lack of love and acceptance he receives from them. This rage is the animal part of him, the one that wants to kill, the tiger within him, and often times the experience of this rage can be too overwhelming for the child. One part of him now «wants to kill» his parents, while another part of him «wants to love» them and be loved by them.

This results in an internal conflict in the child that triggers unconscious guilt. His reptilian brain «understands» that aggression towards his attachment figures might lead to rupture in the attachment bond, therefore his attachment instinct triggers unconscious guilt which activates the UAM in order to ensure his survival. Often times the child gets help from his parents to solve this conflict by getting an acceptance for his mixed feelings, but very often the child receives no support and understanding regarding his internal conflict.

This unconscious guilt due to his aggressive impulses is an extremely uncomfortable feeling which the ego tries to avoid experiencing at all costs. Therefore it is first suppressed by the UAM and secondly by the ego’s defense mechanisms, and the end result is symptoms, anxiety, and other psychological problems since the energy of the feeling remains stuck in the body. Most people live their entire lives unaware of their unconscious guilt and the powerful force that it is. Basically, suppressed unconscious guilt influences every action both in childhood and later in adult life if it isn’t resolved. That’s how influential it is for our psychological health!

The last level is the defense against emotional closeness (DAEC). This barrier against sharing feelings develops when the ego tries to prevent intense feelings of love, pain, grief, guilt, and rage reaching conscious awareness. The child learns that experiencing these feelings only leads to negative consequences and emotional pain, and therefore he develop relationships with people where his ego tries to minimize the chance of these feelings occurring.

The capacity to develop warm emotional ties to caretakers is innate. However, when this love is not reciprocated, the pain and anger becomes so great and so unbearable that the child unconsciously decides that no one will ever get close enough to cause such harm again. To avoid sharing feelings in general are then often the only solution the ego comes up with. As a consequence the child builds a DAEC-layer around the entire intrapsychic system. As Coughlin describes it: «What began as a layer of protection for many children becomes an immovable barrier to satisfying human contact later in adult life».

The moment a child starts to hide his feelings towards others marks the beginning of psychological symptoms. No one gets to see his pain and grief, sadness, rage, or even his «positive» feelings like happiness or love. He then gradually becomes a living machine lacking in the most basic of human qualities.

In a therapeutic setting one begins at the outer layer of the GSU and move layer by layer to the core in order to reach healing. This means to first work on the DAEC and character resistances, then to feel through feelings of grief, anger, and guilt, until one finally reaches the attachment core and feelings of love. How to do this will be the focus in Chapter 13 where you’ll be given an exercise to practice working through your own GSU.

The emotional brain remembers

A human being isn’t a machine but a living organism consisting of energy. Feelings are what gives us our life-energy, and the energy from our feelings doesn’t go away even though we try to cover them with defenses. If the feeling isn’t allowed to be felt it stays in the body causing symptoms. This is why symptoms and anxiety can last a lifetime.

The imprint of the emotional brain is very strong, and once something is learned in the critical stage (age 0-8) it takes a lot of effort to change it. We have to unlearn the now maladaptive defensive strategies that we learned as children and start all over again by facing our feelings in order to reprogram the emotional brain. The person who is identified with his defenses and are unaware of what’s really going on inside, is really trying to do the same things over and over again expecting a different outcome. Until the pattern and reliance on maladaptive defense mechanisms changes, symptoms will continue to exist.

The emergence of defense mechanisms

Any thought, feeling, or impulse that might risk breaking the attachment bond will trigger an anxiety response from the reptilian brain. When a child is angry towards its attachment figures this causes internal conflict within the child. Now he’s angry towards the same people that he’s attached to and love and this makes him feel guilty. This is the earliest of internal conflicts, and how the child is taught to cope with this plays an important role in how he learns to accept his own feelings, thoughts, and impulses later in life.

When anger is present the physical energy of it will not go away by simply repressing it. This energy will remain in the body, and if it’s not made conscious and experienced it will seek other outlets. Since the repressed feeling is stuck in the body and gets no outward release its only option is to turn the anger onto itself. One of the most common ways humans turn anger onto themselves is by the defense mechanism of identifying with the aggressor.

According to ten Have-de Labije and Neborsky will children that grow up without little acceptance and guidance on how to deal with their feelings have a tendency to have their inner dialogue more aligned with the critical parent than with their own Self. That is, the child will in his inner dialogue begin to speak to himself in the same way as his unaccepting parent speaks to him at the expense of what his own feelings and spirit are telling him. This sets off a pattern in his mind of imitating his critical parents rather than listening to himself. When this happens there is no distinction between his Self and the critical parent inside the child’s mind. This leads to a loss of identity and self-awareness since his sense of self has been replaced by the internalized aggressor’s perspective and now influence how the child looks at himself and the world.

The mind of the young child is very innocent and suggestible and can easily be manipulated and programmed to believe almost anything. As part of the attachment instinct is the child’s naive acceptance of the beliefs and attitudes of his attachment figures. The reality he is fed by his attachment figures is the reality he comes to believe exists, even if this reality is false and corrupt.

If our parents keep telling us that we are a bad child, then one part of the young ego will believe this to be the case. If our parents react with acting out, negativity, or anxiety, then the young ego will easily believe that it is the cause of its parents’ emotions and reactions. The child sees himself and mommy/daddy as one entity and needs help to understand that he has his feelings and mommy/daddy have their own feelings that they’re responsible for. For him to understand that he’s not the cause of his parents emotions is important for his mental health.

Due to the ego’s programming he will then begin to blame himself for his parents outbursts, negative reactions, or anxiety. So in order to keep the attachment-bond intact, the young child will blame himself and start «feeling guilty» (i.e. thinking self-critical thoughts), rather than expressing his feelings. On an emotional level the child’s guilt can, according to Frederickson, be interpreted as an act of love towards his parents. He feels guilty and shames himself so that his parents will remain attached to him and love him.

However, the already mentioned defenses of identifying with the aggressor, self-blame, self-ignoring, denial, and projection are just a few of the defenses the ego invents in such a situation. Because of the dominant attachment instinct, and since the human ego believes itself to be the cause of events, and because the energy of the feeling needs release, and ultimately since the human mind is easily programmable, the elegant solution to the repressed anger-guilt loop is the creation of yet further defense mechanisms. How the ego is influenced based on early childhood experiences will be covered more in Chapter 9.

The GSU & the reprogramming process

Coughlin comments that no matter how close or connected we are with another person there’ll come a time when we want different things or the other person fails to live up to our expectations. Frustration and potential rupture of attachment bonds we have with others are thus inevitable. Therefore it’s how we deal with our mixed feelings towards those closest to us that determine our level of anxiety and how we come to feel about ourselves.

Since we no longer need to stay attached to our caregivers we can learn to reprogram our brain to no longer feel anxiety when mixed feelings towards attachment figures arise. If we get this handled (i.e. the mixed feelings towards those we’re attached to) most of seemingly unrelated symptoms and problems like phobias, fear of flying, physical pain, depression, social anxiety, or performance anxiety seize to exist.

By healing and overcoming anxiety, symptoms, and psychological problems we start with the outer layer of the GSU and then work our way to our core. First we need to work on our defense mechanisms. Then we need to allow ourselves to feel fully our anger and rage and the guilt due to our aggressive impulses, then the grief and sadness regarding the love lost between us and our attachment figures, before we ultimately «return home again» and experience our love for them. For our mental and physical health it’s very important that we have the ability to feel all these feelings fully. Chapter 13 will cover practical work you may do on your own to accomplish this.

During this reprogramming process you will also be taught to view love as something different than attachment because love is not the same as sacrificing yourself to keep a bond that instinctively exists in order to keep you alive. Love is something much more different than that (Chapter 10 & 16).

The rest of this book will prepare you for this reprogramming work, first by becoming able to regulate your anxiety, then by becoming aware of and turning on your defense mechanisms, until you finally become ready to actually feel the feelings that your unconscious mind has learned to associate with emotional pain and a loss of love.

The article above is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Reconnect to your Core.

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