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How we often treat others the way we were treated

The new biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs reveals him as an extremely talented but complicated individual. This was true as much in his personal life as his business career.

Jobs was adopted as a baby and knew very little about his birth parents. But when he was the same age his birth father had been when he abandoned him, Jobs fathered and abandoned a child of his own.

The story suggests that history can repeat itself, often without us realizing.  One of the goals of psychotherapy is to help individuals stop repeating the same old patterns of behaviour – patterns that may have been absorbed in some way from childhood.

In simple terms this means that we often treat others the way we were treated. If we were raised by parents, or caregivers, who did not show us real empathy and love it will be difficult for us to treat our own children – or ourselves – in an empathic and loving way. And that can have very serious knock-on effects when it comes to sustaining close relationships in adulthood.

At the extreme end, parents who are aggressive and hit their children often produce individuals, particularly young men, who are prone to using violence. In Why Love Matters, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt points out: “The child comes to expect violence from others and doesn’t hesitate to use it himself. He attributes hostility to others even where there is none because he has become highly sensitised to expect violence.”

This theory extends to other forms of treatment. If we are criticised a lot as children we will often become critical of others (and ourselves) as adults. Similarly, if our vulnerable feelings are dismissed or devalued as children we can grow up suppressing these feelings in ourselves and criticizing others who show them.

Ultimately, the response to this predicament is not about blaming our parents, although we may need to give a place to legitimate anger and sadness over what we did not receive. It is more about taking responsibility for our own lives but in a compassionate and loving way rather than a “stop whingeing” stiff upper lip way.

In psychotherapy it is the relationship between therapist and client that can help in this process as it enables individuals to get in touch with, and accept, feelings that were dismissed or crticised when they were growing up. This supportive approach can help the individual understand that they are not fundamentally flawed and have the capacity to develop new ways of behaving and relating.

As Gerhardt points out, the therapeutic relationship can help the client rebuild neural pathways in the brain that affect emotional experience, although this process is a lot slower for and adult than it would be for an infant.

“It is not enough to organise new networks in the brain by offering new emotional experiences,” she says: “For these networks to become established, the new form of [emotional] regulation must happen over and over again until they are consolidated. But once they are…. some degree of real healing can be achieved.”

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Written by Patrick McCurry - psychotherapist working with individuals and couples

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Written by Patrick McCurry - psychotherapist working with individuals and couples

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