Tether Points: How Emotional Wounds Keep Us Stuck in the Past

Arm of person who is sitting on swing alone reaches to hold chain of other swingEvery fight follows the same path, or every friendship ends the same way, or one romantic partner blends into the next because they’re all so similar: all signs that unhealthy patterns control one’s life. As a therapist, much of what I do is unearth patterns. Why? Because patterns point the way to the real issue: emotional tether points that keep us stuck in the past.

Tether points are like invisible strings that tie us to the past and keep us from functioning fully in the present. To stop having the same fight with our spouse, or losing friends the same way, or dating the same kind of toxic person, we must discover where our tethers are attached. Then, we must cut ourselves free. To do this, we have to make conscious what is unconscious.

Tether points originate with experiences that were hurtful and damaging to one’s sense of self. We experience many of these emotional injuries, both large and small, over our lifetime. Each one becomes a marker on the “map” we make of the world and affects how we navigate life. Sometimes these wounds help us build resilience, but often they weaken and limit us.

To help illustrate tether points, I’d like to tell you about a person whom I’ll call Christina. Christina came to me when she was in her early 70s. She was alone and very unhappy. She sought answers to why she felt isolated and why her romantic relationships never lasted long. We talked about her history with men and about her childhood.

Christina was 9 when her mother died. Her family believed crying was a sign of weakness, and her father scolded her whenever she expressed grief in this way. She sometimes felt angry at her mother for abandoning her, and then she felt guilty about her anger toward her mother.

Until we become aware of our emotional tethers and identify what they connect to in our past, we will be run by these old, unconscious forces.

Christina’s response to the trauma of losing her mother, and the trauma of being scolded for showing her feelings, was to shut off her emotions. She wanted never to lose someone she loved again, so she made an unconscious vow to herself that she wouldn’t. As she grew up, she dated many men, but the affairs were all brief. On the occasion that a man fell in love with her, she found an excuse to end the relationship.

In therapy, I helped her to see how her relationship pattern connected to the trauma of losing her mother. She had unconsciously lived her life based on what happened to her at 9 years old. Together, I helped her finally mourn the loss of her mother and to work through her feelings of grief and anger. Eight months after our work together ended, she called to tell me about the wonderful man she was in a committed relationship with.

Christina is of course just one example of how unprocessed trauma tethers us to the past and keeps us from living the life we want. Her story shows us what happens when we finally recognize unhealthy patterns and identify our tether points. Until we become aware of our emotional tethers and identify what they connect to in our past, we will be run by these old, unconscious forces.

For help with this and other issues, contact a licensed therapist in your area.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea Brandt, PhD, MFT, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

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

  • Leave a Comment
  • KD

    April 2nd, 2018 at 12:34 PM

    The answer is always, “contact a licensed therapist” but what happens when the therapist becomes a part of the pattern and doesn’t realize it or doesn’t care? Therapy can, itself, be retraumatizing.

  • Estelle

    March 7th, 2022 at 7:18 AM


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