All About Our Inner Working Models (And How We Work With Them in Online Therapy)

When clients come to therapy with symptoms of distressing anxiety, intrusive thoughts, or energy-depleting depression, there are usually present-day circumstances causing stress. But to find the root of their symptoms, I inevitably look towards their past. Oftentimes we develop beliefs as a result of historical experiences, and people could be unknowingly carrying these beliefs which are making their current experience even more overwhelming or despairing.

It’s the difference between these two phrases:

“I have a hard job and I am working more hours that I would like to,” versus, “I am smacked in the face with anxiety and feelings of overwhelm that I can’t do my job right.

I am not spending as much time with my family and friends that I would like, and I worry sometimes that they feel disappointed by that,” versus, “I am terrified every day that my family is going to leave me if I make a mistake and it makes me panic and try to prove that I am useful.

I know I’m still a worthy human being and doing a great job, I just want to re-arrange my priorities,” versus, “I feel ashamed and like I can never do enough, and I am constantly coming up short in the eyes of others.”

Can you see how the first person might have a deep sense of worthiness and love, while the second feels fearful and like it’s all up to them to “prove” their worthiness; it’s not just a given that they have the right to experience? What is the difference between the two? Why does one hold a rigid belief that they are unworthy and doomed to be rejected?

Trauma is one way that our beliefs shift and become concretized in a certain manner.

Especially when we have had repeated, chronic experiences of being unable to resolve our anxiety, fear, or embarrassment in a healthy way, it causes us to develop alternate beliefs about why we deserve those feelings or why they belong to us. When I review a client’s history, oftentimes they will tell me about their childhoods and how they suffered from mis-attuned caregiving.

This of course can be blatant physical or sexual abuse, but also could be the cold withdrawal of love in response to normal, developmentally appropriate childhood experiences. Or it could be a caregiver’s lack of responsiveness and indifference to a child’s distress, or a demonstration of disgust or anger to self-expression.

(As a side note, I know that being a parent is difficult and we are not always feeling perfectly balanced and able to respond to our children in an ideal manner. I just want to make a note that I am not referring to imperfectly perfect parenting right now – when I speak of mis-attunement that has mood and perception-altering impacts later on in life, these experiences happened repeatedly and chronically, even when the child showed some signs of distress or fear. They also generally are never accompanied by an apology or any type of awareness that their child was frightened or in pain.)

Some of my online therapy clients are quick to rebut, “How can something that happened so many years ago be impacting me today?”

They have not lived under the same roof as their parents for many years, and do not understand how distant historical experiences could hold so much weight in their present emotional anguish. They might look back and see that they had felt an injustice had occurred, or remember often feeling afraid in their household, or they felt they were forced to grow up inappropriately fast, but it’s hard to draw a link between then and now. If I am an independent adult, why would fears of my childhood still linger?

One of the reasons that our childhood experience can have such a great impact on our mood and cognition later in life is what John Bowlby identified as our development of “inner working models.”

(John Bowlby was a British Psychologist who originated “Attachment Theory” – you may have heard about this via different attachment styles such as Secure, Insecure/Avoidant, and Insecure/Anxious). Inner working models are the embodied understanding of what to expect from ourselves and our environment, which saliently includes our attachment figure. It is helpful to predict how the environment is going to respond to us, because it is how we survive and most effectively adapt to our surroundings. It also tells us a lot about who we are in the world – am I someone worthy of support and love? Or someone who is unimportant and bothersome?

Healthy childhood development includes a feeling of safety and protection from the caregiver, while also respecting the child’s autonomy and desire to grow, learn, and explore. A child can learn she is worthy of love and care, while simultaneously generating self-confidence in her ability to navigate the world. As Inge Bretherton stated in her paper on The Origins of Attachment Theory, If the attachment figure has acknowledged the infant’s needs for comfort and protection while simultaneously respecting the infant’s need for independent exploration of the environment, the child is likely to develop an internal working model of self as valued and reliable. Conversely, if the parent has frequently rejected the infant’s bids for comfort or for exploration, the child is likely to construct an internal working model of self as unworthy or incompetent.”

These inner working models are also much more easily created as children, and more difficult to alter as adults (though not impossible by any means!) It’s just important to understand that as children, our brains are especially susceptible to learning from the world around us and creating meaning. We still can learn as adults, of course, but science has shown that we tend to have a greater amount of slow brain wave activity as children, and this changes as we grow. This is important because one of the brain wave states that we experience a lot more as children is theta, and this is the brain state we are in right before sleep or when we are daydreaming or in mental relaxation and deep meditation.

Theta has also been linked to making us more receptive to hypnosis. The presence of more theta helps us to “record” new declarative memories. This is big! This means that as children, we exist more often in a suggestible state, way more open to absorbing beliefs about our self and the world. (It also means that to access these states as adults, a state in which we can “record” new memories of who we are, we must do it from a relaxed, open, and creative state.)

So as kids we really come to embody these working models of self and other. We identify patterns in how others respond to us, and this expectation feeds into our identity of who we must be.

We come to expect certain outcomes, such that an invitation to express a need might be incredibly scary if we have come to expect that our needs bother other people. As adults, given the right cue or trigger, we can be right back in that state, fearing cold withdrawal, betrayal, aggression, indifference, or inaccessibility. When this happens, our adult anxieties and nerves may actually make us feel more like a fearful child.

As children we form special bonds with few individuals. Our connection to our primary caregiver is strong. It’s like we are born knowing exactly how advantageous it is to have one or two main, primary connections that will be our ultimate lifeline. Because we are so vulnerable and reliant on these caregivers, we really learn to tune into what to do and what not to do that increases our chances of being loved and cared for. When we don’t feel free to explore and make mistakes, we may develop rigid, perfectionistic mechanisms to help us “succeed” in the eyes of those who matter to us most. Or, if we feel that receiving any sort of loving attention is completely hopeless, we could act out and exercise risky behavior that gives us some brief reprieve from the shame of being unloved.

Inner working models become a screen through which we see the world.

If I was ignored a lot as a child and left alone, especially when I was emotional, I may fervently believe that the only way I can be loved is if I never bother anyone and don’t show my emotions. I might be hyper-sensitive to slight signs of disapproval, even interpreting neutral facial expressions as negative. I could also totally be blind to my own gifts or virtues if these were never reflected back to me. They didn’t become part of my inner working model. I might get through life pretty well, working hard and being super duper nice all the time, but inwardly I might feel a bit anxious and not really know who I am or what I like.

Or perhaps I was part of a family with higher-than-average intelligence, and I noticed that “sounding smart” got me attention, versus speaking naturally from the heart. This may get me far in my academic career, but someday I might fall into a depression and feel a bit empty, having never really felt loved for who I am. I may wonder if I prioritized “achieving” beyond exploring my own interests, simply because I thought that would finally get me the love that I desperately wanted as a kid. I might not even feel safe exploring my own interests, because it wasn’t part of my inner working model that this was an acceptable thing to do. I might feel like if I do what I love, I’ll end upalone and uncared for, and that makes me feel ashamed of who I am.

It’s really important to see that inner working models are often absorbed and defined in childhood, when we are much younger, vulnerable, and dependent. In this state, it’s easier to understand that losing someone’s love would bring up a lot of fear in us. Later in life, it may seem silly to have so much fear and self-doubt. But this fear lives in us the same way that our 5-year-old-self lives in us.

Before we can change our inner working models, we need to first witness that we have them.

It’s like trying to remodel a house without first seeing a blueprint of the original house – we can plan all we want for new additions, but without really comprehending the original foundation and structure, it would be impossible to accurately update the parts that truly needed it.

So first, we need to really ask ourselves, how do I anticipate the world is going to react to me? Do I feel worthy of love in all moments, even when I might be trying something new or unsure of myself? Or am I anticipating that people will judge me as less-than, leave me, scoff at me, etc.? What we anticipate will occur is our own personal belief system.

Sometimes just seeing that those beliefs are there is enough to start to change them. However, this often is not the case. Especially if these beliefs were formed through traumatic interactions that left us feeling helpless, they might be a bit more hard-wired into us. In that case we really need to have an experiential shift in our blueprint, which is more of a working through versus working around.

When Triggered, We Need to Ask Ourselves, What Context Just Arrived?

One thing that is useful to do is to see our experience of “being triggered” as the activation of an inner working model, or context, rather than just an uncontrolled emotional experience. Instead of pathologizing the emotion that comes up when we are triggered (ex. When I get angry, things get bad. When I feel ashamed, I just totally shut down and can’t do anything), we can look around and see the model that was activated. This can help immensely with how we change our working model of the situation, increasing flexibility and adapting to new circumstances, rather than feeling stuck with our emotion and needing to “just cope.”

For example, if my partner tells me they were going to call me at 9pm and didn’t end up calling until 11pm, I might understandably be a little disappointed or frustrated. However, if my inner working model comes in that people close to me will just disrespect me because they don’t truly care about me and won’t be there for me when I need them, this becomes a highly charged situation very quickly. Suddenly I might find myself wanting to get out of the relationship, feel angry, afraid, and panicked, and instead of asking for support, I will likely be cold and biting when my partner does call me. Rather than view this situation as, “I need to work on my anger,” understanding that we just activated an inner working model gives us more ability to change when we ask, “What are the components of this model I am responding to?”

Another example is when we feel so ashamed and afraid of disappointing someone. Say we did or said something that is making us cringe and writhe in shame, and we are isolating ourselves and waiting for the bad feeling to pass. Instead of asking, “How can I feel less ashamed?” we could ask ourselves, “What inner working model just arose? What context am I experiencing? Am I anticipating that this person will reject me and leave me and that somehow the whole world thinks ill of me? And that I have no recourse to ever make amends or be loved despite my imperfections? How does that impact my behavior?” When we see that there is a whole blueprint there, rather than just an isolated emotion, it becomes easier to work with parts of our experience, rather than taking it as a rigid, solid and unchangeable truth.

Lastly, I always encourage people to see a therapist, or some type of professional that is trauma-informed and can help process difficult emotions that might come up when you look at some of your deep-seated beliefs. Inner working models are just that – beliefs about what is going to happen, what the world thinks of us, how the world will respond to us, what we deserve, when we need to protect ourselves, etc. They become rigid and “stuck” when situations taught us that flexibility wasn’t possible nor safe. Part of changing rigid inner working models can be looking at a traumatic past that gave rise to them, and that can be painful and overwhelming, which is why I highly recommend working with someone in therapy who can help guide you through the process.

  • Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
  • To schedule an online therapy appointment with one of our clinicians, click here!

Get Started

We will respond within two business days.

Email communications cannot guarantee privacy. Please do not submit any confidential information in this form. We will address your specific situation during your initial consultation.