by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
Individuals typically come in for counseling feeling that there is something “wrong” with them, something broken with their Mental Health. Often they come in feeling that they are some sort of anomaly and are relieved when they find out that they aren’t. I typically start my work with a client by gathering a complete psycho-social history. I want to know all of the facts about them: from health and lifestyle, career, education, family history, substance use, and mental health history. I spend the first session exploring their unique experience of anxiety and depression by utilizing an assessment that gives a numerical rating to their experience. This helps to get a baseline of their symptoms and to track progress in the future. I typically give a brief overview of my particular “brand” of therapy, Schema Therapy, and then I get right to what, in my opinion, is the most important information of all. I ask them to describe their mom and dad to me.
Naming isn’t Blaming
I am guessing that a lot of people reading this will be taken aback by this directive. People will probably think, “what do my parents have to do with my anxiety? I can’t really see the relevance.” This is actually a pretty common question that I hear in therapy sessions. Maybe it will come to a surprise to many, but the majority of people don’t come to therapy wanting to blame their parents for their problems. In fact, most people that come into my office go out of their way to defend their parents, often saying things like, “I had a pretty good childhood,” or, “I know that my parents did the best that they could.” I am a firm believer that blaming others for our problems gets us nowhere if we use the blame to get out of ownership of our current problems. I do, however, believe that understanding what aspects of us got broken along the way, and naming them, helps us to understand the work that we need to do to overcome our Mental Health struggles. Placing proper ownership on others, particularly those who were adults and were responsible for us during childhood, helps individuals to get rid of internal messages that are often at the root of their current struggles. Until we understand the thoughts and feelings that drive some of our unhealthy behaviors and unhealthy coping skills, we are rarely even conscious of what is at the root of the outward signs of struggle, whether that struggle is anxiety, depression, addiction, or relationship problems.
Schema and Early Messages
Schema Therapy is all about identifying hurtful beliefs about oneself, others, and the world. When we receive messages, either from things that are said to us directly or indirectly from our parents and caregivers, we often internalize those messages as universal truths. These messages become part of our core beliefs during childhood and we inevitably go into adulthood not even recognizing that they are there. These messages have impacted our concept of ourselves and shaped our personality and understanding of life and relationships. As adults, we operate from these beliefs as if the fact that they seemed true in our childhood means that they are true for the rest of our life. In reality, however, we are often in very different environments in adulthood than we were in childhood. We have different homes, different lifestyles, different interests, and different people around us. Some of the people in our lives may be very much the same as our parents, but others might be entirely different. If we aren’t able to distinguish the difference between feelings that relate to our past and ones that are a direct result of our current experiences, we are often stuck reliving what we perceive to be a perpetual re-experiencing of painful childhood experiences. Hurtful messages are reheard, painful feelings are relived, and our original schemas are “confirmed” for us over and over.
Reality Testing Feelings
There is hope, however. The hope is that we have the opportunity to learn from our feelings, if we can take the time to reality test each and every reaction and experience that we have as adults. We can pay attention to the painful feelings that come up for us in moments of anger or despair. We can explore whether the pervasive feeling of being abandoned, for example, is truly because we are literally being abandoned by a current friend or partner, or whether our child self is reliving childhood experiences of abandonment they experienced physically or emotionally by a parent or important caregiver in our life. Rather than reacting to our feelings and fleeing from or sabotaging relationships prematurely, we can learn to sit with our feelings, enduring them while we check all of the facts of the current situation to determine if we are actually being abandoned versus feeling like we are being abandoned. Once we determine where the feeling is coming from, the past or the present, we can either do some reparenting of our inner child by supporting, comforting, and validating our childhood experiences, or we can choose to be open and vulnerable with our partners and friends about what we are experiencing and why, and we can ask for extra support and understanding or even request change.
Naming Feelings Leads To Intimacy
I have written quite a bit about Narcissism and Caregiving and how this impacts individuals capacity for healthy relationships. The bottom line, however, is that, whether our parents are more Narcissistic (performance driven and shame averse) or more Caregiving (continually sacrificing to help others and manage their own guilt), they weren’t aware of the ways in which they were failing to validate us or give us an emotional education growing up. Many of us were taught to “suck it up”, “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”, or “get over it” before we were ready. We were essentially taught year after year to ignore our difficult feelings in order to make those around us more comfortable. This message is at the root of so many individual’s Mental Health and relationship struggles. What we know, as therapists, is that, in order to lead healthy lives and experience intimacy with others, we have to be able to feel our feelings, identify our feelings, explore the thoughts behind those feelings, and distinguish where the thoughts and feelings are coming from. We have to be mature enough, and have the ego strength, to tolerate not only our own discomfort, but the discomfort of those around us, so that we can understand ourselves and others. This knowledge helps us to operate only within the boundaries of our own responsibility: owning and dealing with our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This is how intimacy is expressed and shared and this is how we are truly known by others and how we know others.
Healing Through Giving Voice to Pain
So many individuals with depression, anxiety, past trauma, or addiction, are not suffering from Mental Health ailments, rather they are experiencing physical signals from, or coping with, neglected and misunderstood feelings. Rather than facing feelings, identifying feelings, embracing them without judgment, and learning from them, they are suppressing, hiding, and coping with feelings that have gone unexpressed for a lifetime. If there is any hope for each of us to heal, it must first start with our willingness to feel uncomfortable feelings such as shame and guilt, sadness, grief, and unmet desire. We must meet them with curiosity and compassion, rather than judgment and condemnation. We must put
If there is any hope for each of us to heal, it must first start with our willingness to feel uncomfortable feelings such as shame and guilt, sadness, grief, and unmet desire.”
aside angry outbursts, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and continual suppression of our feelings, and focus on giving voice to the pain of our past and present. We must live through the pain so that we can come out the other side of the pain. This is the power of human resiliency and drive, and every other positive change starts here.
For more information on anxiety specifically, see Caveman No More: Surviving Modern Day Anxiety
For more information on Addiction specifically, see Starting Lineup: Addiction and Change.