“What’s past is prologue.”
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
The thing about the past is that it’s not the past.
People are often deterred from starting therapy because they think they will have to dredge up unpleasant things from their childhood, which can feel daunting. Yet, childhood experiences will surface, as they typically influence your present relationships. That doesn’t mean you have to excavate every disturbing event from your past, but it usually includes dealing with the issues and patterns that keep paying undesirable emotional and behavioral dividends in the present.
If you are working with a seasoned therapist you trust, the journey is fascinating. After all, who or what is more interesting than you? Good therapy helps you develop compassion for whatever you went through, as well as appreciation for how resilient you are, both of which can lift your spirits.
It’s perfectly natural to have some anxiety about retrieving unhappy childhood memories as you might fear being flooded with feelings of worthlessness, rage, depression, and anxiety. Fear of being retraumatized and feeling as helpless as you did growing up is a real concern that deserves attention. Therapy can help you manage those concerns, while only going as fast as you feel safe to go.
No matter how inconvenient and annoying it is to have childhood issues still affect you as an adult, it makes perfect sense when you think about it. Imagine you plant a tree. Every year as the sapling grows you force the trunk in another direction. One year you bend it to the right, the next you bend it to the left. After a decade you let it grow straight. For the entire life of that tree its base will be jagged. No matter how big and strong the trunk grows, the base will never be straight. The tree is incredibly healthy, but its early years are still obvious to anyone looking at it. Humans are far more complex than trees, and can cover up the effects of their early years in myriad ways; yet, those childhood experiences exert an influence.
Another reason therapists care so much about your childhood is evidence gleaned from the Adverse Childhood Experiences study (ACE) which showed definite links between the amount of adverse childhood experiences and an increased incidence of health, mental health issues, and social problems. You can take the ACE questionnaire here: http://www.acestudy.org/the-ace-score.html. (You can read more about the study here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jane-ellen-stevens/the-adverse-childhood-exp_1_b_1943647.html)
Of course, you did not need to have major traumatic childhood experiences to have issues. New research talks about the difference between what researchers are calling “little t” and “big T” trauma. “Little t” are things like incessant put downs, devaluing you as a person, snide remarks and sarcasm, while “big T” usually refers to war, rape, childhood sexual and/or physical abuse. Their findings show how anything that feels like family betrayal can actually be worse, long term, than cataclysmic events. The theory is family betrayals, or betrayals by an intimate, go to your very core and make you feel unsafe. Unsafe in your body, unsafe with people you desperately want to trust, and unsafe in your world. After all, if you can’t trust your family, whom can you trust?
It’s healthy to avoid pain, and revisiting traumatic experiences can be difficult. Luckily, there is a therapeutic technique called Internal Family Systems therapy that is both gentle and deep. It greatly limits the chances of being flooded with unpleasant or disturbing memories and their attendant emotions. IFS allows you to get to know your various parts, how they might be polarized, and whom they are protecting (vulnerable child or teen parts that still carry heavy emotional burdens). In addition, it helps you appreciate all the creative ways your protective parts have been trying to keep you safe, even when some of them have used alcohol, drugs, random sex, gambling, hoarding, etc. to keep your emotional Mount Vesuvius from erupting.
If the idea that you have a multiplicity of internal parts seems alarming, think of all the times you said something like: “Part of me wants to go to the movies, but part of me knows I should study for that exam tomorrow.” It’s second nature to notice different parts of you that want different things. What is less intuitive is how some parts use extreme behaviors, emotions, and thought patterns to protect you from feeling shame, grief, inadequacy, worthlessness, etc. IFS puts you in the driver’s seat. You control how fast you want to go, and if you start to feel flooded with an unpleasant emotion your therapist can help you unblend from the part creating it.
Of course, IFS is not the only path to freedom from the effects of adverse childhood experiences and trauma. Mind-body practices like yoga are extremely helpful in creating a new internal landscape, while fostering a different relationship with your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
Philosophical approaches like Buddhism can help you sit with unpleasant emotions, watching them come and go with curiosity and interest, knowing they won’t last. Buddhist techniques also help you reframe whatever painful experiences you might have so you can see and experience them differently.
For those of you who have often thought people should just stop blaming their parents and get on with life, I am not suggesting anyone blame their parents. This is simply a way to explain how childhood experiences have a long term influence. While you can work wisely with them and feel better, it’s impossible to completely overcome their effects.
“Your suffering is your benefit,” is a Buddhist phrase often invoked as a reminder of the hidden gems in even the worst pain. Tibetan Buddhist monks go even further with their practice of seeking out suffering. No, they are not masochists, they simply believe suffering ignites the fire of compassion for yourself and others. Just as in the Buddhist practice of loving kindness, or metta meditation, you start with yourself.
For more information and guidance about metta meditation see these links:
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang