How to Reach Out to a Person Stuck Behind a ‘Wall’

Couple Holding Hands OutdoorsIntensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP), like all psychotherapy models, is a set of ideas and strategies used to form a healing relationship with another human being. Like therapists using other models of therapy, ISTDP therapists strive to create a relationship in which a person in therapy feels safe and secure. Experience shows that people need to feel safe in order to experience the emotions that their symptoms are designed to hide, and that experience of emotions within a secure bond will likely reduce their symptom burden (Davanloo, 1990; Frederickson, 2014; Abbass, 2015).

Sounds simple enough, no?

How ISTDP Therapists Use Attachment to Create Safety

All psychotherapy models are ways of connecting and creating safety, but many assume a willing, motivated person will show up to the first session, which is not always the case. Some people arrive terrified of emotional contact with the therapist. They may come in and, intentionally or unintentionally, do things that interrupt their therapy goals without knowing why. Many therapists get stumped by these situations.

I love learning, teaching, and practicing ISTDP because the model offers an elegant system for reaching out to and supporting people to overcome the automatically deployed avoidance mechanisms that can defeat therapy. In ISTDP, we create safety by inviting a secure attachment, and then help people overcome the automatic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that would otherwise create an insecure attachment.

Why People Create Walls and How We Can Invite Them Out to Play Again

Those of us who set out to create healing relationships, in therapy and elsewhere, quickly become aware of the many barriers people erect to keep love and concern from others out. We learn about the many rationalizations and self-recriminations that buttress people’s interpersonal walls. We understand that for many people the wall was once a survival mechanism, but we also see how it hurts them now. This presents a challenge: How do we create safety and security with someone who won’t let us in? How can we heal a heart if we can’t get close enough to see it?

We understand that for many people the wall was once a survival mechanism, but we also see how it hurts them now. This presents a challenge: How do we create safety and security with someone who won’t let us in? How can we heal a heart if we can’t get close enough to see it?When we reach out to meet a person and instead we meet a wall, therapists and non-therapists alike have a variety of reactions. We might feel angry toward the person we reached out to so lovingly. We might act out that anger and turn it into efforts to control or cajole. We might pretend the walls are not there and carry on a chronically disappointing pseudo-relationship with whatever parts of the person are not walled off. Often, we transiently forget our love, feel only our anger, and become harsh. We might even respond with our own walls.

In psychoanalytic thinking, we call the above reactions “enactments” (Sandler, 1976; Chused, 1991). In other words, we start acting out the relationship that the wall invites us to have, rather than the healing relationship that the person behind the wall needs from us. We end up relating to the character armor (Reich, 1945) or “resistance” rather than the wounded person who is stuck underneath. For therapists, the trick is learning how to step out of or around the enactment and reach out to the person behind the walls.

ISTDP therapists are trained to try to channel our mixed feelings of love and anger into communication. In this case, we talk about the wall with phrases like:

  • “Do you notice how when I asked how you were feeling, you started to avoid my eyes and withdraw into your thoughts?”
  • “Do you notice how as I was inviting you to celebrate the successes you shared, you minimized your progress and started to put yourself down?”
  • “Do you notice that whereas just a minute ago you were fully on board to face these feelings, now you are digging in your heels and saying you can’t or won’t?”

For ISTDP therapists, our first step in connecting with someone who is pushing us away is to describe the behaviors that make up the wall so they can be seen, considered, and discussed. Like any survival mechanism, our walls are built automatically and often unconsciously. To overcome these automatic barriers to connectedness, people often need help slowing down, self-reflecting, and noticing what is happening.

First, help the person see the wall. Let him or her know you see it too. Only then can you start talking about why it’s there and how it’s hurting the person, which may help him or her begin the work of overcoming the wall so you can create a safe, healing space together.

The wall, Davanloo’s (1990) vivid metaphor for the psychoanalyst’s “transference resistance,” will push many friends away, and often deflect any otherwise helpful therapeutic intervention. The wall is often a major driver of symptoms and presenting problems. By talking about the wall in ISTDP, we can sidestep the “enactment” and its destructive potential, and make a safe space where a new kind of relationship—a healing relationship—can take root.


  1. Abbass, A. (2015). Reaching through resistance: Advanced psychotherapy techniques. Kansas City, MO: Seven Leaves Press.
  2. Chused, J. (1991). The evocative power of enactments. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 39, 615-640.
  3. Davanloo, H. (1990). Unlocking the unconscious: Selected papers of Habib Davanloo, M.D. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
  4. Frederickson, J. (2014). Co-creating change: Effective dynamic therapy techniques. Kansas City, MO: Seven Leaves Press.
  5. Reich, W. (1945). Character analysis. New York: Noonday Press.
  6. Sandler, J. (1976). Countertransference and role-responsiveness. International Review of Psycho-analysis, 3, 43-47.

© Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maury Joseph, PsyD, Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy 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
  • daphne

    November 2nd, 2015 at 7:25 AM

    I guess that for those of for whom this is a problem, we put up those walls in order to try to protect ourselves from hurtful behavior. In all honesty it stems form being hurt in the past so we put up those walls to try to protect us from feeling that kind of pain all over again. But in the process we are never letting someone in who could potentially have a loving and caring impact on our lives.

  • Maury Joseph, Psy.D.

    November 2nd, 2015 at 9:38 AM

    I love the way you put that, daphne. Thank you for sharing your insight :)

  • John

    November 2nd, 2015 at 9:40 AM

    When I worked with abused and neglected children this was a particular challenge. I found that all children do not want emotional contact. Many would simply prefer safety. As hard as this was for me, I learned to give up the psychological space in my office and give it over to the client. I pretended to ignore one child. He actually began asking questions about what I was doing. That was a beginning.

  • campbell

    November 2nd, 2015 at 2:16 PM

    There are those times where you just have to keep trying because these are not the people who will reach out to you and ask for help.

  • Maury Joseph, Psy.D.

    November 2nd, 2015 at 4:49 PM

    Hi John,
    I tried to post this earlier and it didn’t work, so if this turns out to be a redundant post, woops!
    Thank you for sharing that fascinating clinical moment. You’re right that for some people, especially those who were traumatized by neglect in the early phases of their lives, the ability to detach and put up a wall, rather than be flooded and overwhelmed by emotions, is a developmental achievement. In therapy, respecting and even reinforcing their ability to detach will help them feel safe with us, so I think your intervention was spot on! My post is more oriented towards folks who are already good at detaching from emotions and closeness, but it has become a problem for them. Thanks for sharing your comment!

  • Keri

    November 3rd, 2015 at 12:14 AM

    Excellent article. As a physician assistant,I work with abuse victims of all types and this is invaluable insight into the mind of those with walls.

  • Lydia

    November 3rd, 2015 at 11:33 AM

    For me you nailed it with the title when you emphasized the term reaching out. I think that many of us, myself included, see these people who have put up those walls for whatever reason and we just want to write them off and pretend that they don’t need our help. But we have to remember that they do need help just like any of the rest of us need help but they could simply be afraid to ask for it. Sure you may offer to help and they may turn you away, but at least you know that you tried to do the right thing and there is nothing better than offering to help another in need that you could do.

  • Maury Joseph, Psy.D.

    November 3rd, 2015 at 6:03 PM

    Dear Keri,
    I am so pleased you found this post helpful for your work as a PA. It’s amazing that how the emotional reactions that get stirred up in therapy can get stirred up towards all helpers.

  • Maury Joseph, Psy.D.

    November 3rd, 2015 at 6:16 PM

    Thanks for your feedback and comments, Lydia! Isn’t it terrible that for some people the best way they know to communicate their needs to us is through pushing us away? The more we can be sensitive and empathetic to these phenomena, the more helpful we can be to the person behind the wall.

  • Lydia

    November 4th, 2015 at 6:24 AM

    It makes me feel so bad, like I want to help but then you get to the point at times where you don’t want to fool with it anymore. But you can’t give up because you would want someone to do the same for you.

  • kaye

    November 6th, 2015 at 6:37 AM

    just because someone acts like they don’t need help doesn’t mean that that is true

  • Vanessa

    November 6th, 2015 at 8:55 PM

    But what of someone like myself, a spouse who has tried to get through my husband’s walls for years but cannot? As the article pointed out, those trying to like myself often resort to putting up their own walls. We are each in our own therapy and we’re in couples therapy as well. But the more progress I feel like I can, have,and need to make, the tougher I find it to live with his walls without like mine will go up too.

  • Gertrude

    November 7th, 2015 at 10:53 AM

    Therapists need to be done with this nonsense of safety and relationships with clients. They are virtual strangers, that will remain strangers after the therapysession is over. We, the clients go to them for tools and knowledge, insights in how we dysfunction and can learn to improve that with our loved ones, if we have those or whenever someone potential to enter in a real loverelationship or deep friendship enters our lives. Relationships with therapists are onesided and never or rarely reciprocal. Even if we are that lucky in the session, it does not continue in our daily normal lives. The illusion of this safety, functional relationship with therapists spoils us with too high expectations from those we meet or are with in normal life, who simply have not done the studies to meet these requirements to be with us broken people. Far more important then these illusionary relationships are to learn tools how we can avoid trashing relationships with children, siblings etc. when triggered into fulblown traumastates. How to keep and maintain what is and build from there. Possibly this illusionary fancy about safety etc. with therapists lifts their burden to think up real solutions for our brokenness, and all the symptoms, dysfunctional relationships that come with it. I once had this welcoming relationship with a therapist, or so i thought. But when i called her one day, at a moment of acute suicidal depression, she told me coldly she had no time. And you know any relationship that has any value, meets my standards, would never do that to me or see the door. Even with my brokenness i know i deserve better then someone telling me she has no time, when i am about to end it all, can’t even breath. 3 of my 4 adult children are out of contact. The one son who in in relationship has learned to call or sms me when i am truely in need. That took years of him maturing and my teaching him for him to pick that up. And no that is not that long. My oldest siblings, one 80, the other 77 still have not got it, even when the one of 77 has metastasized breastcancer.

  • Gertrude

    November 8th, 2015 at 9:36 AM

    Hi Vanessa, You are not living with his walls but with your own. It is the old saying that something cannot trigger if there is nothing inside of you left to be triggered. I found it the ultimate practice with my sons, one daughter, to keep opening my heart wider. Everyone was saying that our family was healing. And yes it was painful to keep making that choice not to address their flaws, but to keep addressing my own. As due to CPTSD/DID i am most likely an avoidant attached personality. Also a question of always having ones agenda/calendar ready and to ask the assertive question of when do you have time to do such and so or to say i need to see you more often and to think of creative ways how to make that possible in the other’s often busy life. We often keep loosing ourselves about whining about the other’s flaws and nothing changes. whilst when we ourselves change the other changes with us. Then the outsider came back, the man who had sired my youngest then some 20 years earlier and then did not want to be his father/declined father, wanting to visit twice a year, against which i protected my son, after reading many psychology books on the subject. It turned out that for years he had fostered this illusion of adding my son to his family and now that my son was adult, took his chance, but with the claim to not have me involved in any way. This is a very nice man, possibly egocentric, possibly somewhat a narcissist, but truly nice. As i come from an extremely dysfunctional, abusive family i did not want to burden my grandchildren with grandparents, of which the grandfather did not want to co-grandparent them nor want to work on walking through the same door on birthdays etc. In no way concerned about their need for safety. Mind you they were not even born yet. At the same time, my youngest son, his brain not fully grown, was like a pubescent infatuated, in love and clearly unable to make a well-thought through decision. Mind you i raised him everyday with positive thoughts about this man, always planning their mutual introduction at one point of time. I always believed that to be my prerogative to do that introduction and to make sure the outcome would be safe for all included/not causing harm to anyone. These days 3 out of 4 children are out of contact, mostly due to outsiders, partners etc. This one son however is learning about how to stay in contact and how to regularly plan meetings, even if just for a coffee on his way home in a place on his route. He calls now regularly. But it was me clearly stating i needed that, or i would get triggered into a full blown trauma state of feeling neglected/aborted/abandoned. One research came under my eyes regretfully after the breakup with my youngest. That is that there is more room for change in a relationship if you stay in contact then after you leave, break it up. That is like opening the box of Pandora and often irreversible. Harville Hendrix made a nice vid with his wife about it. They agreed never to say anything negative about the other and discovered that after going through lows the relationship got even better then before. So what is it that you would like to do with your partner? Start your sentence with I and do not fall into the trap of waiting for him to take some initiative. Many men are often lousy at that. In other aspects they are often great. I have a sister who chooses the whining. Having had 2 mastectomies she just cannot get clarity about how to get her husband to go to the sauna again or a definite refusal he will not go because of her mastectomies, which would infuriate her, but which i can completely understand. A waste of time and effort i find. She has friends and can find someone else to go to the sauna with. Personally i also prefer to speak about closing my heart, or even having it turn to stone then to use the concept of walls, Even though that was what i did as a child Hide behind walls, in closets and under the table. These days i register when my heart closes, after a recent row with a stranger, all her doing. I noticed i was unable to quickly change that closing and declined her offer to talk. You must know your partner well enough to know of a situation that would bring ease and safety. I believe none of us can change to convenience someone else. Yet we all long for love, nurture and company. And to find such a companion is not always that easy. And although one can become one’s own companion in many ways that is awkward and never equals or satisfies. In one’s home it needs to be safe, the ultimate and often the only place where we should be truly allowed to be who we are, all that we are, as long as abuse does not enter the picture or issues like adultery or addictions. Partnership is a contract, sacred but always to be taken as serious as any business contract. You make rules and agreements at the beginning to which you stick. You try to repair before making mega losses or going bankrupt. Personally i believe many therapies are not healing but diseasing. Therapists need to become more like a provider of tools how to handle our real relationships in real life. Too often they love this superficial goody feeling relationships with clients on which they thrive. Giving cheap advice that bring more ruin to difficult sibling relationships, is my experience. And then i find a gem in an unexpected corner. A massage therapist who is not into this field at all, but who herself is so gentle that her massage makes me inclusive in my own body. My hope is that the more inclusive i am in my own body, the less i need others to take care of me. For ultimately that is where things went wrong. i am this unwanted child, never nurtured, never touched, never taken care of and in a way i kept searching in the OTHER to do that for me. Not faulting myself, but observing and acknowledging. Some researcher recently stated that the brains of a mother who herself was neglected, abused is like an 11 year old child and incapable of mothering her own children. In me there is even an unborn fetus, who slowly comes into this world. These days she cries after i have been with a group of strangers, forced to dissociate. Many of us are extremely complex, damaged beings.

  • willie

    November 9th, 2015 at 7:31 AM

    Have we stopped for a moment and ever thought that there are many at this place in life who actually like the feeling of being walled off from others?

  • Gertrude

    November 9th, 2015 at 9:33 AM

    Willie You should not speak for others. But i am curious. How does that work for you? Can you then still be in a committed, cohesive relationship with someone else? As an extreme empath i guess i would get nervous if i would like contact with a person. When i myself put up those walls, the message is i am really done with the other person, which in some cases is quite alright. In the bigger picture though, our every action influences the next 7 generations according to ancient indigenous wisdom. And i do feel responsible both towards my ancestors and towards my future descendants to solve all this conflicting alienation in my family of origin and the family i created myself. Staying behind every person’s walls possiby avoids conflict, which i do not like and am not good at, it also does not strengthen or build cohesion, loving connection. Being alone the better alternative then being abused or neglected, being in a truely loving relationship, where the other feels like the other half of your soul, beats it all.

  • willie

    November 9th, 2015 at 10:33 AM

    Whoa there Gertrude, did not intend to step on any toes. I just mean that there needs to be a level of knowing when someone does want you to reach out and you know, give then some space when they need it.
    Whether this is me or not isn’t the point. The point is that while I know that there are those who anxiously await that outreach from others, there are others who simply pull back form that even more, and if that is their choice, then so be it. They can live their life and I can live mine.

  • Gertrude

    November 9th, 2015 at 11:12 AM

    Giving space can lead to unwanted alienation in the long run is my experience. Time can move fast and when in relationship one simply has to show up. I wish i had read the research that concluded that as long as people are in relationships there is more chance of changes for the better, then when they decide to break contact, because they need those walls,that space. And i am not talking about contacts one can do without. I am talking about my own children here. Lost because of my traumasymptoms, my inability to stand being within my own walls, walled of from them, feeling the devastating pain because of that, but not leaving regardless. I did not know what i know now and left. It is like opening the box of Pandora, decisions once made that need to be lived to its conclusion and which cannot be reversed, time not turned backwards. I am ok with it. Yet cannot help but feel If i had only know that research before making that decision. I pulled back, knowing i could not live what my son had as an option for me, which totally excluded my interests. With a sister i tried to phrase it better. Saying i needed to retreat for a while. Thought that legit, having read that in some article. She again took that the wrong way, felt it as poison, took it to be forever. So what would be a better way? It is at the time, when things happen, we need to show up. But how to do that when our walls instantly are constructed. too high even to see over them even for ourselves. Maybe we can ponder that for a while?

  • Maury Joseph, Psy.D.

    November 10th, 2015 at 6:29 AM

    Hi all,
    Seems like we’re wrestling with the issue of whether walls helpful or destructive, do we like them or do we hate them, and what to do with others’ walls. I wrestle with this every day, in both my personal and professional life, and I think this struggle around boundaries and closeness is a part of life for a lot of people, maybe all of us. As a therapist and human being I have learned, often the hard way, that when someone likes their wall and wants to keep it, then their is nothing I can do other than to point it out and see if they want to do something about it. It is their wall to put up or down. This is, of course, a difficult reality to accept. The situations I describe in my post are oriented towards people who have come to therapy because their walls are producing suffering in their lives, who want help to overcome their tendency to wall up. People who like their walls tend not to come to therapy, except when someone else forces them. When someone comes to my office and tells me they prefer to keep their wall, I do whatever I can to accept and respect that. I appreciate your engagement with my post, and look forward to more feedback and dialogue.

  • Gertrude

    June 13th, 2019 at 3:33 AM

    You are talking as if those walls only involve one person. But others are affected. Right now my own grandchildren in a nasty divorce getting nastier by the day. So as a grandmother who chooses to be wise, i first left when those walls became not bricks but impenetrable concrete. So how to stay intact and radiate positive energy with that person behind that concrete wall, their mother, who is damaging my own reactive son. It is a sacrifice i am willingly making, fully intending to find that way after initially deciding to stay away, but then sensing i might be the only standing, that can give these children a different kind of feedback about their father, that then sense and pick up from the energyfield of their mother, who claims to speak only positive about their father to them, but spreads more venom in my son and his family by the day, which of course is also the family of these children, the source of their genes and DNA. I am not the kind that puts up walls. So i will get hurt, and got hurt already. Now to find away to transcend that hurt quickly and not to react from hurt emotions/feelings.

  • Elizabeth

    June 11th, 2019 at 2:05 PM

    What can you do or say,if anything, to encourage someone to feel they can let their barrier down and let you in? When they talk a lot but the words are a wall? When you care for someone and want to help is there anything you can do to create a better feeling of trust? Any approach that can pierce a hard exterior?!

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.