The ‘Shoes’ We Carry: When Old Relational Roles Stop Fitting

Person in white dress coat sits on sofa and tries on red shoes in line of paired neutral shoesThroughout childhood, our loved ones and others teach us implicit and explicit rules for how to be in a relationship—e.g., “When I do x, you do y,” or, “You do not do x, I do x. You can only do y.” To ensure the maintenance of these important bonds, and ultimately to ensure our survival, we decode, master, and live out these relational rules to the best of our ability.

Attachment theorists call these relational patterns “internal working models” (Bowlby, 1969). Psychoanalysts call them “transferences” (e.g., Freud, 1912) or internalized object relationships (Kernberg, 1979). Cognitive therapists call them “schema” (e.g., Young et al., 2003). Allan Abbass, a teacher and researcher in the intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy (ISTDP) community who has a penchant for low-jargon teaching, simply calls them “shoes” (Abbass, 2016). He notes that we put on the “shoes” of past relationships in our new, adult relationships and in our relationships with our therapists, sometimes to our advantage but often to our peril.

In the paragraphs that follow, I will discuss how we develop our relationship “shoe” collections, how we use those shoes in relationships throughout life, and how those shoes can impact our attempts to heal and grow in psychotherapy.

Where Did You Get Those ‘Shoes’?

Humans are, from birth to death, social critters who desire warm, consistent bonds with other humans in their proximity (see Bowlby, 1969). In an ideal development (if such a thing exists), children are given secure “shoes” in loving bonds. Their caregivers let them know, through word and deed, “I love you and am here for you, even if I’m mad at you, and I also love and will try to understand you when you want to be different than me and do your own thing.” This helps the child internalize relationship shoes that involve love, kindness, and respect for differences.

Not everyone grows up this way. Some parents forbid their children from “doing their own thing.” These children, in order to have the most secure possible bond with the controlling parent, must internalize and accept “controlling parent” shoes and “controlled child” shoes. The terms of the relationship are: “You do not define who you are, what you enjoy, etc.; I define that.”

Some parents cannot “be there” for their children, instilling a pair of “passive, unavailable parent” shoes and “lonely, longing kid” shoes in their children. Some parents show contempt for their children’s needs, rather than love. These children learn “contemptuous parent” shoes and “frightened, needy child” shoes. Sadly, some parents can have even more abusive moments, teaching their children to wear “terrified child” shoes and “raging parent” shoes.

As you can see, depending on the nature of the trauma in the family system, we can learn a variety of models for how relationships work—and we can develop a diverse collection of relationship “shoes,” all with their unique costs and benefits.

What happens when we carry our childhood shoe closet into our adult relationships?

Here, Put These On!

When we enter a relationship with a preconceived idea of how relationships go, we can, intentionally and/or unintentionally, throw on a trusty pair of old relationship shoes and invite our new friend or partner to put on the complementary pair. We do this in subtle ways, such as picking where to go for dinner: do we put on our “domineering parent” shoes and, through our domineering conduct, invite our date to wear our “submissive child” shoes? Or do we put on the “submissive child” shoes and implicitly ask our date to be the “domineering parent” who we may later resent for picking the “wrong” restaurant? When we get into roles in our new relationships that were problematic for us in past relationships, we can wind up in some pretty uncomfortable interpersonal situations.

When our therapist becomes the “omnipotent guru” while we take the role of “eager know-nothing,” we don’t get to discover our own power and competence in our therapy.

“Shoes”-based interactions can also be much worse than a botched date. What about a person with a traumatic history of being abused—perhaps a person who had to accept in childhood that it is okay for an angry parent to beat them? From experiences like these, we can develop “helpless victim” shoes, “abuser” shoes, and “passive bystander” shoes, and we can wind up in great peril when we meet someone with a similar pair of shoes. The social roles we learn in severe trauma and abuse situations can lead us to pair off with someone who will continually switch between “victim” and “abuser” shoes with us, resulting in a perpetual repetition of our worst childhood relationships—a never-ending, mutually harmful entanglement. All the while, we permit this cycle to continue due to the “passive bystander” shoes we learned from those who stood by as we suffered in childhood.

Are You Stuck with These ‘Shoes’?

This sounds like a grim picture: “I learn this way of relating in my child interactions, and I perpetrate it against myself and in new relationships. I carry these relational shoes through my whole life.” The good news, however, is life affords us transformational relationships, often in the form of a psychotherapy relationship, that can help us become more aware of and even trade in our relationship “shoes” for a different, more satisfying pair.

Taking Your ‘Shoes’ to Therapy

Sure, you will show up to your therapy wearing whatever pair of relationship shoes is most normal to you, as you would to any new relationship. Perhaps you will place the therapist in “wise genius” shoes, while you relegate yourself to the “incapable student” role. Or perhaps it will be the opposite—the therapist will be the “lowly imbecile” who has to prove themselves before winning your approval, with you standing in the “disapproving parent” shoes. This is one of an infinite set of possibilities of the unintentional preconceptions about relationships (“shoes”) that you will “wear” to your first session.

In some relationships, this will be a problem, but hopefully not for your therapist. A good therapist’s job is to notice the “shoes” you are wearing, and the ones you are inviting them to wear, and then discuss the shoe configuration rather than act on it or react to it:

Therapist: Do you notice you are taking a passive position here, hoping I will be a magical rescuer who will fix it for you, saving you from work and pain? Isn’t this passivity part of what has kept your problems going this long?

Therapist: Do you notice how you are taking a devaluating stance toward me? What use will I be to you if you put me down and push me away? Is this a pattern for you?

Therapist: Do you notice that you are looking to me to be the expert on you? I can only know what you tell me. If this therapy is going to succeed, we will need to combine our expertise—my expertise about psychology, and your expertise about yourself and your life.

In these imaginary interventions, the therapist is highlighting the relationship shoes being brought into the room, and highlighting the potential costs of acting out the roles that the shoes invite. Rather than thoughtlessly jumping into the shoes, the good-enough therapist invites us to reflect upon and even reconsider the social roles we typically take on and invite in new relationships.

Therapists Can Have ‘Shoe’ Trouble, Too

It is important for our therapists to be sensitive to the relational patterns we bring to therapy, because if they do not see our shoes, or the shoes we are trying to cast on them, or their own shoe tendencies, there is a high risk they will begin to participate in and perpetuate the very interpersonal issues that brought us to therapy. When our therapist becomes the “omnipotent guru” while we take the role of “eager know-nothing,” we don’t get to discover our own power and competence in our therapy. We will look to them to be the expert, just as we might tend to do in other relationships. When the therapist becomes the “active helper” of our suffering while we put on the “passive bystander” shoes, we may never overcome the passivity that has held us back, or learn to take an active stance in our lives.

If we are not helped to become aware of the “shoes” we bring to relationships, we are at high risk of perpetuating those patterns; however, when our therapists help us begin to see our shoes, weigh their costs and benefits, and consider other options, we gain the opportunity to choose how we will approach our relationships. We can shift out of the autopilot modes we learned in childhood, and begin to find more satisfying, adaptive approaches to relationships. With good-enough therapy, we can exchange the relationship shoes we were given for the shoes we want.

If you find yourself in a therapy where you’re talking about and shifting your automatic relational roles—your “shoes”—that’s fantastic! However, if you notice yourself repeating the same patterns, throwing on an old and unhelpful pair of relational shoes with your therapist, and you’re not talking about it and not changing, I urge you to bring this up with your therapist. As perceptive and helpful as we can be, we can get caught up in shoe routines, too. By bringing these patterns to your therapist’s attention, they may be able to help you get yourself into some new shoes that will give you better support and a stronger stride on your therapeutic journey.


  1. Abbass, A. A. (2016). 13th Halifax Immersion in ISTDP.
  2. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  3. Freud, S. (1912). The dynamics of transference. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, XII (1911-1913): The Case of Schreber, Papers on Technique and Other Works, 97-108.
  4. Kernberg, O.F. (1976). Object relations theory and clinical psychoanalysis. New Jersey: Aronson.
  5. Young, J.E., Klosko, J.S., & Weishaar, M. (2003). Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide. New York, NY: Guilford.

© Copyright 2016 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maury Joseph, PsyD, 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
  • lucas

    December 8th, 2016 at 8:42 AM

    Our roles feel worn in and it is hard to try on a new pair and break those in all over again. That is why most of us keep wearing the same old shoes, that is what is comfortable to us.

  • Xeda

    December 8th, 2016 at 10:25 AM

    Nobody wants to wear cheap shoes any more than you need to continue to carry those roles in a relationship that cheapens you. Why settle for anything less than what you deserve?

  • Calvin

    December 9th, 2016 at 11:08 AM

    It’s like milk that you let go past it’s use by date.
    that is not ever going to be any good.
    That is giving you blisters like a bad pair of shoes, shoot it’s time to throw them out and find you a new pair.

  • Izzy

    December 11th, 2016 at 10:11 AM

    I see where you are going with this but if you look at it from the flip side there is actually something that is comforting and honestly comfortable about the things that we are accustomed to. It is like they have been molded to perfectly fit to us, so if it isn’t that badly broken, then why not give it a few more tries?

  • roderick

    December 12th, 2016 at 9:09 AM

    The habit is that we try to force things huh?

  • Bev

    December 13th, 2016 at 12:15 PM

    I guess that I always saw how my own mother was with men and no lie, even though I swore that I would not be like her, my life is like looking at a reflection of hers in the mirror. We try to be different but we fall back into what we know and that’s that. I have had so many failed relationships and I know that I have to take the blame but I can’t help but think that a lot of it is because I never saw what a healthy relationship should be like when I was younger.

  • harvey

    December 14th, 2016 at 2:18 PM

    There is nothing wrong with holding onto the old comfortable things that still do something good for you in life, but why continue to hold onto that junk that does nothing but drag you down? I mean, if you look at this from a clear headed and adult point of view I think that you will see that basically that junk is eventually going to drag you down to bottom of the pond with no way to get back up.
    That’s not really the situation that you want to find yourself in is it?

  • Chara

    December 15th, 2016 at 10:52 AM

    We are always on a journey to learn more and be more, so why is it so hard for us to confront the fact that there will be times in our lives when we outgrow these roles?
    we mature and become older and wiser.
    Or our eyes are finally opened to something that we have been blind to for a long time. This growth should not be begrudged or resented, but rather it should be something that is celebrated.

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    July 18th, 2017 at 10:58 AM

    Great article! I’ll be sharing this with my clients. Thank you!

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