Cautionary Tales: Unconscious Stories That Undermine Therapy

Rear view girl with suitcase on countryside roadThe process of psychotherapy is an unpredictable journey into the unconscious, one that offers surprising gifts and unexpected obstacles. The gifts are many: greater access to creativity, insight, tools to address difficult emotions, and increased intimacy, to name a few.

One of the primary obstacles to these gifts, however, is the “cautionary tale”—the primary unconscious story of hurt, imprinted from childhood, which you carry to each relationship. This tale underlies the therapeutic process and, if not understood and addressed, can undermine it.

Mixed Feelings in Therapy

Although you may be earnest in your pursuit of therapy, you may have mixed feelings about looking at the causes of your suffering. This is part of being human. Who WANTS to re-experience pain?

Inevitably, you will bring your mixed feelings in the door with you at the outset of therapy. These mixed feelings show themselves in a variety of ways in session: in the anxiety felt in the room, in the various stories shared with the therapist, in the tensions felt, in the fluctuations between stuck-ness and progress, in a feeling of push-pull.

It is as if you are taking a trip while simultaneously unsure you want to go or, if you do, where you are headed.

And so you bring in your luggage (filled with conflicts, emotions, thoughts, and memories), drop the bags down in the room, and then, with the help of the therapist, hope (and possibly dread) to sort through them.

If you are unable or unwilling to sort through the bags, they can come out in unconscious ways and stall the process.

What Do We Mean by Cautionary Tale?

One term for these unconscious mixed feelings is the cautionary tale. Thomas Ogden, a major contributor to contemporary psychoanalytic thought, said the following about how the therapist must keep the cautionary tale in mind:

I am listening from the outset for the patient’s “cautionary tales,” i.e., the patient’s unconscious explanations of why he feels the analysis is a dangerous undertaking and his reasons for feeling the analysis is certain to fail …

The patient unconsciously holds a fierce conviction (which he has no way of articulating) that his early childhood experience has taught him about the specific ways in which each of his (object) relationships will inevitably become painful …

Ogden is suggesting here that the so-called cautionary tale is not just mixed feelings but a hidden conviction that therapy will fail. This is important to be aware of, for therapists and people in therapy alike.

Origins of the Cautionary Tale

But where, exactly, does this come from? Simply, a cautionary tale is born when a child’s first love relationships cause pain, either through the experience of abuse, disappointment, misattunement, overstimulation, unreliability, neglect, or something else. Because these early experiences are so painful, the child unconsciously weaves a tale about how this pain will inevitably occur in EVERY relationship, as protection from that same pain.

As the child develops and matures, the tale that was once protective becomes destructive: The adult will act out unconsciously to prove the present relationship is like all the others.

As the child develops and matures, the tale that was once protective becomes destructive: The adult will act out unconsciously to prove the present relationship is like all the others.

Developing a New Pathway

One of the great things about therapy is that this tale can be studied and updated. If you and your therapist keep an eye on your cautionary tale and how it might manifest in the therapeutic relationship, you have the chance to uncover the pain behind it.

If you are in therapy or thinking about starting therapy, pay attention to the thoughts and feelings you have about the process and your therapist’s role in it. Pay particular attention to any anxiety, skepticism, doubt, fear, or paranoia about the process. Then talk about it. There is sure to be a treasure trove of old feelings, packed away underneath, that could hold the key to the gifts you seek.


Ogden, T. (1992). Comments on Transference and Countertransference in the Initial Analytic Meeting. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 12:225-247.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ben Ringler, MFT, Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Judd

    March 3rd, 2016 at 12:29 PM

    Why would someone even agree to go into therapy with all of these ideas what it will be like? Why not enter the process with a clear head and heart?

  • Ben Ringler

    March 3rd, 2016 at 4:16 PM

    That would be ideal, Judd. But perhaps not. These stories live in our unconscious, stored away but they contain the thoughts and feelings we need to access in order to grow and mature. Its a bit paradoxical…

  • Judd

    March 4th, 2016 at 7:23 AM

    I might be afraid of what I might learn :/

  • Karen

    March 4th, 2016 at 9:25 AM

    AWESOME write up on the process of therapy/theraputic relationsip. I have been in therapy now almost 9 years and it took me a long long time to sort my story out and find a safe place to explore that with him. It is SO important to give the process of therapy the time needed to explore those hidden stories within us .. thank you for this great reminder of this process .. I write about my therapy sessions and my healing through my blog, and its through that I also have found healing as well .. . would love to connect with others on this journey
    Finding The Grace Within.


  • Ben Ringler

    March 4th, 2016 at 9:56 AM

    Hi Judd,
    I understand. It can be scary, but also, ultimately, liberating. The key is to find a therapist that you could build trust with and can help you take your time in discovering more about yourself. Best to you, Ben

  • Ben Ringler

    March 4th, 2016 at 9:57 AM

    Thank you, Karen. You’re affirming the value and tremendous benefit that comes with long term work. Im so glad to hear that it has moved you to write! What is your blog?

  • Karen

    March 4th, 2016 at 10:09 AM

    My blog is

    thank you :)

  • Logan

    March 5th, 2016 at 7:34 AM

    For some I think that there is still this myth that going into therapy makes you look weak, or that something about it will make you say something that you did not want to disclose. If you are there then you are there for a reason, maybe there are some things that you subconsciously want to tell someone and this is where that led you. Go with the journey, and discover things that you may have never known.

  • Leif

    March 8th, 2016 at 7:53 AM

    How sad to think that it would be that very first love relationship that could cause this kind of distrust all throughout one’s life. This should be one of the most amazing things that you have experienced, not the one that will have set you up for sadness

  • ansie

    December 6th, 2016 at 9:52 AM

    i am going true this a i write.. this is my trip…my first love was a drama
    i thought oo no never i stayd single my whole life i didddnt even know way i did but i needed my freedom…&no dramas im now 44 and going spontaneous true this prosess!! very painfull but so so needed thank you for the article<3

  • ahbuddha

    September 10th, 2017 at 12:02 AM

    I realize this article is a bit old now, but it just popped up in my news feed and is very timely for me (curse you google search algorithms!) I keep getting angry that my therapist doesn’t understand and isn’t listening, yet I’m terrified he is giving up on me… and now that you put the vocabulary to it, “cautionary tale” I clearly see that he’s been trying to tell me just that! It is my early experience with my parents and teachers. Diagnosed with ODD at the age of 5, when I was really struggling with Complex PTSD… I wasn’t being oppositional, I was screaming for help and no one heard me! My therapist often encourages me to discuss any conflicts or struggles we have in the relationship, but my hard-knocks training to be polite and surrender to authority makes it difficult for me to voice any disagreement. (seriously, ODD needs to die!) I also resist because no one understands and obviously no one will help me… So, thank you for clarifying what my overwhelming emotions were keeping too muddled for me to hear in session from my therapist. Perhaps it will convince ME that I am not being oppositional, he is hearing me and does understand. Neither of us are giving up. But I ‘spose we should talk about it first ;)

  • Benjamin Ringler

    September 11th, 2017 at 9:51 AM

    I am so glad that this article was helpful to you! Yes, try to talk it through… if you can work through this with your therapist, it can be transformational… if not, it gives you more info about whether or not this therapist can be helpful in those difficult moments with you. Take care! Ben Ringler

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