What's the past got to do with it?
Our pasts cannot be changed, that is true. We cannot go back in time. We may feel that the past is behind us and we have moved on in life, so it is easy to think ‘What is the point of thinking about it, let alone talking about it?', and yet our pasts can affect how we currently think, feel and behave. It is as if a part of the past still haunts the way we are, affecting how we react and feel inside.
We may find ourselves reacting to someone’s comments, rather than responding as the adult we know we are. Instant reactions, that are based on strong feelings and at the same time feel a little out of context, are often the sign that the past is influencing us in the present. For that reason, the past is worth remembering, talking through, and understanding. Reflecting on how it was for us, how it was growing up in our family, and finding the locked away emotions and experiences, can be the first step in understanding defensive reactions in the here and now.
As children, born into a specific family, we learn how to relate with others from the examples set by older others, be they parents, caregivers, siblings, teachers, etc. Even under the age of six months, children may mirror the emotions found in the faces of their parents, copying features of depression, anxiety, fear, and joy. Children adopt aspects of the emotional reality displayed by the parent (Winnicott, 1960). A child closely witnessing how the adult behaves receives unspoken messages about what it is like to live in the world and what to expect from relationships with other human beings.
As we grow, older family members teach us what feelings, thoughts and behaviours are acceptable, which are not acceptable, and what is expected from us in terms of how to feel, how to behave, and what to think. We adapt to the expectations and form beliefs about the world and our place in it.
Our beliefs, along with our experiences, lead to our interpreting relationships and events and deciding whether they are safe, trustworthy, out to get us, threatening, or harmful. Our ‘worldview’, or script, can become our entire life’s understanding of how relationships work and who we are. This taught ‘way of being’ becomes our world, as the only world, until such time as we come to realise that other realities do exist.
In families where the attachments have been less than nurturing, children may assume the responsibility for the emotional states of the parent(s). A child is unable to say ‘Dad is angry, irritable and short-tempered because he is hungover’, or ‘Mum is withdrawn and quiet because she can’t find her own voice or confidence within the marriage’. Finding the courage to speak about past experiences, she may realise that she was not responsible for the emotional states of her parents and accept the reality of the impact that parental emotional states had on her younger self. Without such awareness the individual can find themselves marrying the angry father or depressed mother, mirroring the programmed relational patterns of the past and trying to achieve the closure they never found; trying to get a different outcome.
These childhood wounds remain raw in their hidden, subconscious and unspoken states, liable to being triggered and reactivated in the present, as instant, defensive reactions in situations with family, friends, colleagues or others. In the ‘here and now’, the unreturned text message elicits feelings of condemnation, being ‘I’ve done something wrong and I’m going to be punished’; the declined invite becomes ‘I’ve offended them, I’ve said something wrong’; the poorly worded email is perceived as an attempt to hurt and shame. From our initial relationships, we learn to interpret our ‘here and now’ interactions, misreading the realities and reacting through past lenses, rather than responding as the adults we are trying to become.
Thus our adapting to the family rules during childhood may have been helpful in the short-term, but a deeper understanding in adulthood is necessary for emotional and psychological development to continue.
Denying our emotions and minimising our past experiences leads us in search of the perfect partner, who will meet all our needs and compensate for our own weaknesses. We search for another who may allow us to abdicate the work and responsibility for emotionally and psychologically developing ourselves. Until this perfect person is found, we adopt a ‘false self’, Winnicott (1960). This ‘false self’ manages our weaknesses, minimises the impact or reality of our pasts, and denies our needs, presenting to the world a complete and desirable individual. Eventually, the energy needed to present this image becomes intolerable and we wonder how we came to be in such a mess.
Relationships are hard. All that we keep subconsciously hidden, we wish to find in the other. All that needs healing in us, we may expect the other to accomplish - and this will fail. We will continue to feel hurt, betrayed and let down whilst continuing to insist that someone other than ourselves completes the emotional work we need to undertake. Feeling overwhelmed, or abandoned, we will return to the familiar emotions of depression or anxiety, seeking relief through addictions rather than facing our own truth: the reality of our pasts, formed patterns, and the reality of grieving our losses.
The disappointment at recognising the humanity of the other, their ordinariness and their flaws, is the wake-up call of reality. Bringing into consciousness the reality of past relational patterns that no longer work in the here and now, is the psychological and emotional work of counselling. This work can be challenging, uncomfortable and stressful. Grieving the losses of the past and recognising the impact upon our child-selves can be a relief as well as painful. All the work is humbling and finding who we really are is the gift.