Re-entry and the therapeutic relationship
Updated: Jan 24, 2022
Being in the business of relationship building, I’m forced to think deeply and often about how relationships form and mature, or not, as the case may be. A visual analogy that I consistently come back to, and one that describes this process well, is that of atmospheric re-entry.
You may or may not be aware of the physics involved but, in brief, a successful re-entry requires the correct angle of approach, and a heat shield that protects the inhabitants, but which will eventually yield to the friction of the atmosphere. Too steep an approach, and the re-entry capsule will disintegrate, whereas too shallow an approach will see the capsule bounce off the atmosphere and back out into space. In the context of psychotherapy, healing means grounding and integrating one’s sense of self with the body, which, in this analogy is the return to earth. The cosmos, being an infinite space of endless possibility, without limit nor ground, symbolizes the untethered and dissociated state of ego-consciousness, the pain of which, whose origin is mostly unconscious, brings the individual into therapy.
The specific structure of the therapeutic relationship acts as a container that allows the psyche to open to the depth dimensions of self and other, initiating, over time, an integration of mind and body. At its best, therapy can be a powerful antidote to the pain of self-alienation by providing a vessel that is solid enough to support the individual as they allow themselves to acknowledge and encounter the limitations of embodied existence. This encounter with the body can be scary for a number of good reasons. Victims of abuse or trauma will have learnt that the body is an unsafe place to be. There are also the difficult existential facts of death, isolation and meaninglessness, along with repressed and distorted energies, that demand our attention just as soon as we slow down enough to register our own existence.
The practical details that make up the structure of therapy, such as setting, consistency of time and attendance, may seem inconsequential to the uninformed, or might even be assumed to be designed solely in the interest of the therapist, and an unnecessary imposition for the resistant client.
While these boundaries do support the therapist, they also make up the fuselage of the re-entry capsule that holds the client through the turbulent layers of feeling and sensation as they begin the descent into authentic relationship with the therapist, and themselves. Stretching this analogy further, the heat shield that is expended upon re-entry, represents the defences that serve to protect the vulnerable child part within from catastrophic abandonment or annihilation. By adhering to the boundaries of therapy, the client, in the initial and unstable forming stage of the therapeutic alliance will, ideally, have felt contained enough to relax their defences and begin the difficult work of self-reconciliation.
The relationship at this point can function as a proxy for the benevolent and ideal parent with whom the sense of being securely held, psychologically speaking, can be registered and integrated. The taking in, or introjection in psychoanalytical terms, of this relationship becomes a secure base which the client can carry forward into life. Anxiety and fear are supplanted by a deepening conviction that life and self are inherently trustable.
Returning to my analogy. For the client who wants relief from suffering as rapidly as possible, the notion that the relationship can be the healing factor is met with barely concealed frustration.
Approaching at too shallow an angle, they bounce off the atmosphere and onto something or someone who is selling a quick-fix technique for eradicating their self-alienation. Unfortunately, such techniques, and sometimes those who employ them, can only exist in orbit, and so collude with the individual’s perpetual bouncing out of the body, and the present moment. In this way, therapeutic techniques, if used dogmatically, are simply an avoidance of relationship, and the deeper healing that it can offer.
This applies equally to the excessive reliance on medication that conveniently numbs the awareness of pain and alienation. While sometimes very necessary, SSRI medications demand a significant sacrifice for increased psychological stability. They exacerbate dissociation by muting the body’s natural alarm systems that show up as anxiety and depression. No longer able to heed the body’s warning, the medicated individual, not only cannot use the pain to identify the wound, but is now in danger of suffering more serious and chronic psychosomatic manifestations of their alienation from self.
Re-entry failure can also be caused by too steep an angle of approach. Whereas the previous client could be described as an avoidant type, the prospective client in this case might be described as anxiously attached. Here, a similar intolerance of relationship is present, but manifests as a compulsion to close the gap as fast as possible. This can show up as various defences against intolerable anxiety, all of which involve a kind of over-familiarity that seeks to flatten the distinctions between therapist and client. A desire to merge with a benevolent other, although seemingly relational, is a narcissistic wish to absolve oneself of responsibility, and a defence against a genuine meeting, which depends on reciprocity. This can also show up as a benign presumption that the therapist is simply a good friend, thereby undermining their role and consequently the healing potential of the relationship.
In specific terms, a steep approach angle might look like premature disclosures that induce feelings of shame or vulnerability before sufficient trust and stability has been developed between client and therapist. This suggests an anxious overriding of the organic process of relationship building. Such disclosures are frequently followed by a compensatory shutting down or defensive distancing and can prove disastrous for the client’s safety needs.
Both of these types of relational defences are certainly not failures per se, but as strategies for managing fear, are simply grist for the therapeutic mill. They can however become obstacles when they are allowed to derail the successful formation of a working alliance between therapist and client, either by premature termination, or merging. In such cases, the therapist's skill at gently diffusing such defences is the antidote.
Ultimately, the development of a productive alliance requires a certain consistency of rhythm and pace that can hold the natural contractions and expansions of the psyche. The integration of mind and body, and the return to earth, is frequently a turbulent descent that demands a large dose of faith in the relational process.