Your past still matters, but why? Oftentimes in counseling, therapists will challenge their clients to think back to their childhood when trying to make connections to why they continue to repeat certain behaviors in their life today. This task can be met with much resistance and we can understand why. Some memories are painful, some are hard to recall, and sometimes its just difficult to see the point in dredging up the past. It’s hard to imagine that events that took place so long ago might have an impact on the present moment, but we can assure you that more often than not, they do.
There are a few other reasons why people are hesitant to discuss their parents/caregivers in therapy. One reason is that they feel protective; Protective of their parents because they have been conditioned from birth to learn that their parents/caregivers are the ultimate authority, so speaking out against them is not right. They feel ashamed or guilty for bringing up negative aspects of their parents/caregivers and perhaps for as long as they can remember they might have even been keeping family secrets or conditioned to believe it is not ok to “air dirty laundry.” They will often gloss over any emotional trauma and just give basic facts/details about events that occurred without any real emotion behind the story telling. Sometimes, the less emotion that we counselors sense, the more protective a person is, and that can be a challenge for us as a practitioner, but also for the client. A good counselor will never force a client into discussing things they don’t want to discuss, but we also know that they came to us for a reason. It is a sensitive, fine line that professional counselors are trained to navigate. That is one reason it is so important to find a licensed counselor you can trust or who has been recommended to you by their success in helping others.
The “protective guard,” or defense mechanism, is very common and on the outside, for all intents and purposes it does just as it should. It protects, right? But look a little closer and you can see there is still hurt, still pain, still anxiety and depression, and the real protection is actually causing its protector discomfort. So, what good is it doing anymore? Who are you really protecting anyway? Maybe you learned along the way that the people in your family hurt when events of the past are brought up so family secrets stay in boxes. Subjects that people long ago said to stay hush about, well, they stay hushed. Over time, the awareness of the events that caused pain or might have impacted us to act the way we do now, just seem like a part of our past. Connections between then and now get lost along the line and many people continue to operate their adults lives off of the conditioned learning of their family system, having little awareness why things are not working for them now.
Counseling with a good counselor will help a client uncover a few things about what correlation the past has over the present. For starters, where do you think all your beliefs about yourself came from? Do you think you were born thinking you had to be at the top of the class or you wouldn’t amount to anything? Do you think you were born thinking that you have to be skeptical of everyone or that its normal not to trust anyone completely? How about, do you really think you were born with that intense fear of rejection that makes you overly insecure and sensitive to the slightest shift in any relationship? Those things don’t get born into children. They come from somewhere. Somewhere that more often than not, started from tiny little messages you received throughout your childhood. Those little messages, however direct or indirect, shaped you into who you are today, make you act the way you do, and are the sides of you people in your life will keep seeing until you challenge yourself to look a little further.
Through this process of looking further, you will begin to peel back layers of faulty beliefs that you might soon begin to realize are not your own. You might discover that beliefs about yourself or little voices you have heard in your head all along, telling you this or that (“Make sure you smile at everyone that passes by,” or “You can’t leave the house without looking your best”), might not have actually come from you. You might discover that they came from your mom or dad, or even a grandfather. One day someone who was close to you might have said to you, “You’ll never amount to anything, you know that?” or “All men are pigs, you just can’t trust any of them.” Those messages might not seem much to you now, but at the time they were said, they meant a lot. You concluded many things about your entire little world by comments, gestures, and anything that happened to you along the way. Most of them might have been good and maybe you can thank your dad for your drive to graduate college and become a successful lawyer, but you still can’t figure out why you keep cheating on your wife. Do you want to know the reasons why you keep pushing people away or why you can’t just be the husband you know in your heart you want so desperately to be? Well, you have to look further.
This peeling of layers…this looking deeper, back to the way back… begins to make way for whats underneath; A unique identity, perhaps suppressed for many, many years now. One that tried to come out from time to time but got hushed and pushed back down. Because, you see, we are born innocent, naive, and very, very moldable. We absorb everything we learn and we make up our own beliefs about who we are, how we need to be, and as we develop, we use all that information to formulate exactly what our place must be in the world. And then….we go about creating that world around us, based on this system we shaped. We become very good at believing who we are is who people tell us we need to be and we begin to think that what they say to us, or how they treat us, is what we need to believe about who we are and how we need to treat others to validate that belief. We create our own self-fulfilling prophecy.
The first thing counselors always try to reassure their clients about is that parents really do try and do the very best job they can with what they know and have. Any good therapist will tell you that counseling should never be about bashing your caregivers. It is simply about creating more awareness and understanding of what made you who you are. It is about uncovering old systems that you may have been conditioned to operate by, based on someone else’s beliefs, that you are still using to this day, but might no longer be effective for you as an adult.
When a client begins to see the actions of their upbringing as a key to unlocking certain belief systems, they begin to create a space for their ability to make a decision about whether they want to continue to operate by a system that was created for them, or if they want to use their own based on their identity now. Maybe all of that sounds simple…and often during a really good session, a client will say to me emphatically, “I get it now! Now I know where that comes from. Why didn’t I ever see that before?” To me that’s music to my ears! That is the chord they need to strike to begin making way for their own music to start playing in their heads, not the tunes of other people.
If you or someone you know might seem like they keep repeating that they “just can’t understand why I keep doing that?” give yourself or them a gentle nudge to talk to a professional counselor in Orlando. The process doesn’t have to be scary or painful. It can be empowering, eye-opening, and down-right amazing…especially if at the end of that short time you spend with a counselor, it allows you to achieve the results you have been wanting for your life all along but never understood why you weren’t getting them on your own.
Heather Oller is a licensed Orlando therapist at Orlando Thrive Therapy, Coaching & Counseling who specializes in counseling Orlando couples, individuals, and families who are seeking changes in their lives. She has been a mental health professional for over 17 years and is a practicing Orlando counselor that specializes in conflict resolution for couples. You can contact her for an appointment or call 407-592-8997 for more information.