Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Understanding the past means a better future

"The way we are treated as small children is the way we will treat ourselves for the rest of our lives." -Alice Miller, For Your Own Good

As a psychotherapist, I see so many people suffer so much even if they are free of significantly negative circumstances or major environmental stressors. Too often the reason for this perpetual suffering is the way they were treated as children. Most people understand that a child who experiences ongoing trauma is going to become an adult who suffers from a great deal of mental and emotional hardship- until they are able to find psychological and spiritual healing, but the majority of people overlook the lasting effects seemingly benign forms of negative parenting can have on an individual. If a parent was physically present but emotionally absent, if a parent implies that a child's worth comes from their achievements or looks (or any quality for that matter), if a parent shows no interest in a how a child is feeling or what they think or mocks a child's expression of emotion, if blind obedience is demanded... these are just a few of the things that can impair a human being's sense of worth and dignity.

Naming this reality doesn't often win me many friends. I am accused of trying to tell other people how to parent when I couldn't possibly imagine what it's actually like to be a parent. Traditional Catholics cry that obedience is required of children, "the Bible says so!" Many who subscribe to popular parenting advice lament that focusing on a child's achievements will result in more achievements (which they reason could only be positive). It's true, I am not yet a parent. I do not claim to fully grasp the realities of parenting. For the purpose of this post, I would like to briefly respond to 2 of these common responses. 1) The obedience issue- for brevity's sake I'd simply like to reference this quote: "Discipline is about making disciples. Disciples choose to follow out of love and trust, not coercion and fear. Parental discipline must also be based in a relationship with so much love and trust that our children choose to learn from us, not from fear of punishment, but because our example is worth following." 2) The achievement issue- Focusing on your child's achievements to the exclusion of their efforts, their feelings, and their thoughts will likely get you an adult that believes their achievements/possessions/looks are what make them a worthwhile person. These people often chase after success unconsciously believing it is the key to feeling loved.

There are no perfect parents. Most - if not all- parents are doing the best they can with what they have. None of us have had perfect childhoods. Of course, our parent's failings are not an excuse for our own failings. As adults we are ultimately responsible for our actions. However, I want to challenge you to take the time to understand your past. Acknowledge the childhood needs that were not met. Admit your parents weren't perfect. If you've suffered abuse please find a good therapist (just like doctors, there are many bad therapists). Consider how the way you were parented might be affecting your sense of self today. Consider how the way you were parented might be shaping or distorting your ideas about God.

I have spent many years in psychotherapy. As a therapist, I have a responsibility to be proactive about my mental health to be able to provide the best possible service to my clients. A therapist who has not worked through their own issues (and everyone has issues) is rendering themselves ineffective. The childhood needs that weren't met in my life were subtle (ie I didn't suffer terrible abuse) but these unmet needs did impact the way I saw myself and impair my ability to form healthy relationships with others. Through therapy and spiritual direction, prayer and the sacraments, I continue to develop a more accurate sense of who I am. Too often Christians suffering from depression or anxiety are told to pray more or otherwise made to feel that their suffering is the result of some spiritual failing. The Catholic Church teaches that we all have intrinsic worth and dignity. Some of us had parents that conveyed this to us- explicitly or implicitly- some of us didn't, and I think it's safe to say none of us had parents that did this perfectly. Turning to Jesus is the most important part of the puzzle but don't deny yourself the human help he wants you to receive.

Find a Catholic Therapist
Holistic Women's Mental Healthcare
Christian Counseling/Parenting Resource
A Catholic Guide to Depression
Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints

1 comment:

  1. So much of our childhood affects us. I actually had a great childhood, but there were definitely a few things I've had to work out, as you say and I agree that we all do. I'm also completely floored by how much past trauma, and especially childhood trauma, plays out in physical healing and chronic pain problems.