"They mess you up, your mum and dad"
'They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.' *
So runs the poem by Phillip Larkin and this seems to be the basic belief behind a lot of therapy. However, many people - counsellors and clients - find this idea difficult and pessimistic. In this article, I want to outline some of these difficulties, propose alternative viewpoints and, in the process, outline some powerful ways of working with childhood experiences.
The most obvious difficulty is that most of us don't remember much before the age of five. Freud would say that this is because we don't want to remember and most therapies have ways of helping clients to get at what can't be remembered, but nevertheless, this lack of tangible memory remains problematic for clients, particularly those who are new to therapy.
Sometimes, even when memories exist, clients will doubt their own version of events and seek corroboration either from siblings or their parents. In the latter case, the second line of Larkin's poem becomes relevant. There are few parents who deliberately set out to 'F*** their children up', to use Larkin's expression. This gives rise to another problem, which I'll move onto, but the important thing is that they're very unlikely to verify the client's version of their childhood. This means that clients end up doubting their own feelings and perception, which is often the reason they've come to therapy!
Many clients will find the idea of 'blaming' their parents for their hang-ups, or whatever brought them to therapy, disturbing and uncomfortable, partly because of the second line of Larkin's poem. The message that clients' parents were only doing what they believed was best for their children may have come directly from them to the client or it could have been transmitted unknowingly by the client’s parents in the form of an atmosphere, or climate, in the family where the child feels responsible for their parents rather than the other way round. Either way, the client begins to doubt their own perceptions, believing that whatever isn’t working in their life must be ‘their fault’ and if only they worked harder/had things more under control everything would be ok.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are some clients who are only too ready to blame their parents for their current difficulties and this seemed to be the approach favoured by therapists in the 1970’s and early 80’s. Clients were encouraged to express their negative feelings towards one or other of their parents noisily and sometimes physically (in the form of a cushion or mattress). Whilst this was undoubtedly empowering for the client and certainly discharged their pent up feelings of aggression, it didn’t necessarily bring about the desired resolution.
The last problem I want to raise in relation to Larkin’s poem and therapy is that, by the time most people come into therapy, their parents are old and they’ve probably lived apart from them for years. Clients often have difficulty believing how much influence this old man/woman who they don’t really depend on anymore can have on their present day life and relationships. It is difficult to equate the terrifying figure from your past with the frail old lady in a wheelchair.
Before this gets as pessimistic as Larkin’s poem, and he wasn’t a man noted for his cheery outlook on life, I want to make some alternative propositions. The first proposition is that human beings' personal perceptions of their experience have more effect on them psychologically than the actual experience. We get very busy these days with tracking down the truth or reality of events and this is fine in a court of law or a scientific experiment, but therapy is neither of these.
Clients come to therapy to make sense of their experience and this is usually judged by whether the therapist believes the literal truth of what they’re saying. What is more important is that the therapist supports the client’s perception and their right to their feelings which result from this perception. In terms of Larkin’s poem, the adult son or daughter’s belief that he/she has been f***ed up by his/her parents needs to be heard and respected by the therapist whether or not they believe it to be the literal truth. In this way the client learns to trust and accept themselves, which is the beginning of healing.
My second proposition concerns the assumption, both in Larkin’s poem and in some therapies, that children are passive recipients of their up-bringing. If we assume that they aren’t, we have another possibility. Young children need their parents, both emotionally and physically and are prepared to make all sorts of compromises, consciously and unconsciously, to maintain a relationship with them. Whilst these compromises have probably become habitual to the client there is a value to recognising them as such, since it gives the client the possibility of experimenting with not compromising in order to maintain current relationships.
My third proposition is that, although our real parents may be old, separated from us or have even passed on, we all carry around a representation of them inside us. We may not be able to change our relationship with our actual parents, but it is the parent who ‘lives’ inside us who is 'f***ing up' our present day lives. Although it isn’t an easy process we can, because it’s actually our version of our mum or dad that we’re dealing with, change our relationship with that ‘internal’ parent.
These propositions, which are a synthesis of several different models of therapy, may seem controversial, but represent a powerful foundation for working with childhood experience.
* For a full version of the poem, look up 'This Be The Verse' on www.poetryfoundation.org