Understanding Your Psychological Issues Better by Understanding Your Past:
As a psychologist, I am often surprised by how many of my clients come to therapy believing that what ails them is simply a matter of a personal defect or an inherent weakness in their own ability to cope with things. They look at themselves in their present state without any true awareness of the influence of their past.
Luckily through therapy, people can learn to appreciate and acknowledge the challenges posed to them by the life they have lived and understand the various ways their past has shaped their present behaviors.
What they then discover is that the symptoms or ways of being that today seem to bring them in trouble, were at one time quite adaptive and perhaps even ingenious ways of getting through situations that were either overwhelming or threatening to their safety.
One of the reasons why therapy can be so effective is that it helps people rewrite the narrative of their past and re-integrate those difficult or painful experiences that were either left behind (by leaving a part of themselves behind), or turned against themselves (through a narrative of self-blame and self-criticism).
4 Unmet Needs that Can Cause Psychological Issues in Adulthood:
In the following I would like to provide a small catalogue of some of the events in a person’s development that can leave indelible marks on the soul and come to cause distress and symptoms later in life.
These psychological events are centered around a person’s growth and safety needs not being met by others around them, thereby causing psychological distress that the person has to deal with by developing their own ways of taking care of themselves or getting through a difficult situation.
As the interpersonal psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan has described it: “The self divides, of necessity becoming its own caregiver, and much effort becomes invested in security operations”.
By reading through the list you can undoubtedly begin to identify areas in your own development where something might have been missing or gone wrong, and this is the first step in reclaiming a more compassionate narrative of yourself and of your past.
So let’s go through 4 very common childhood and adolescent needs that can leave lasting scars if not met by the people around us:
1. The Need for Secure Attachment:
Human beings are wired to need comfort and attention, just as much as we need food, and oxygen. If we grew up in environments where we could not always count on our caregivers to be there and to help us when we needed them, then we would likely have experienced these absences as life threatening, and have had to develop ways to divide ourselves to become our own caregivers, as Harry Stack Sullivan says. Some of these ways include becoming overly self-reliant by suppressing our needs for connection and our feelings of distress, or anxiously trying to please others at the expense of developing a true sense of ourselves. We might also have tried to solve the dilemma, by combining the two strategies, such that we both anxiously pursue connection and push others away out of fear, a common feature of what we now call borderline personality disorder. All of these strategies can later show up in our adult relationships, especially in relationships with romantic partners. The very shields that served to protect us from our unreliable caregivers, can now become obstacles to becoming known and loved, or contribute to driving others away. One client who came to see me was perceived by others as self-reliant and strong, but in intimate relationships, which she mostly avoided, she would become so anxious of losing the other person that she would end up making them feel suffocated and ultimately precipitate their rejection of her.
2. The Need for Mirroring:
Some people feel empty, out-of-touch with themselves, and not quite sure of their interests. Oftentimes these phenomena can occur as a result of the absence of mirroring when we were growing up. Mirroring means that the people around us respond to us in a way that mirrors back to us that what we are doing is good and worthwhile and worthy of attention. When others see us as good, worthwhile, interesting, competent and so on, we eventually come to feel this way about ourselves. By having a positive image of ourselves reflected back to us, we come to feel that we have worth and value and we can then live life from the inside-out, rather than frantically seek to get approval and validation from others. One of my clients, when asked what she had really wanted from her father in college, replied: To ask me what I was reading and what I was interested in. Instead of doing so, her father had been full of recommendations and advice about how his daughter should live her life. He had not mirrored her interests back to her and had therefore contributed to her own sense of alienation from herself. Because of never really having her subjective experience understood and mirrored back as interesting or worthwhile, this woman now found herself to be a perpetual people pleaser with very little awareness of who she was outside of the context of who she was to others.
3. The Need for Idealizing:
Some people feel adrift, directionless, or unmotivated because they never really had experiences of father figures, mentors, or role models in their life when they really needed them. One of my clients lamented that his father was never around and looked with envy at his peers who would go fishing with their dads or would learn how fix cars. We all have this need for an asymmetrical relationship with someone who wants to take us under their wing and has an interest in teaching us something from a position of greater wisdom. This makes us feel safe and protected in the shadow of the other person’s greater knowledge, but it also makes us aspire to be like them and kickstarts dreams and fantasies about who or what we want to be when we grow up. Without these kinds of mentoring experiences, we feel left to our own devices, and not encouraged to grow and make something of ourselves. Even worse if the people we were supposed to look up to failed us in some major way or weren’t exactly good role models, but instead people we felt ashamed of. One client, for example, remembered having to spend much of his teenage years hiding the embarrassing fact this his father was a “drunk” who didn’t treat him or his mother right.
4. The Need for Twinship:
Another powerful need is the need to feel normal or to have peers who think, feel, or look like you do. This makes us feel that we are not strange, odd, or different, and makes us feel included and part of something, rather than isolated and unacceptable. Psychiatrist and self-psychologist Heinz Kohut referred to this as a need for twinship. Many people can struggle with having enough twinship experiences during middle school and high school, either because they look different, were bullied by their peers, or for whatever reason just were not popular. The negative impact of this lack of belonging and twinship might be mitigated by forming alternative friendships. One person, who felt like an outcast in high school and weren’t really a good student, found a circle of other outcasts with whom he decided to do drugs. Another person prided himself of being different and made an identity out of being rebellious and outside the box. Others, however, might find themselves to be completely isolated, and grow up feeling like they are not interesting to others and that others don’t understand them. Needless to say these kinds of experiences impact how people feel about themselves. It is quite common in my therapy practice to have clients who still idealize the popular kids in high school and feel rather unsettled or wounded by the fact that they weren’t accepted by their peers.
We could add many more needs to this short list, as there are many little ways that our needs for growth, belonging, efficacy, and worth can be frustrated or become the source of wounds or traumas.
By fully understanding how your past has impacted your present you can begin to heal yourself not by stamping out aspects of your personality that you don’t like, but by addressing the original wounds that necessitated the self-protective behaviors that are now causing you problems.
If you would like read an excellent book on developmental traumas, I recommend Patricia A. DeYoung’s book: Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame. In this book she gives an excellent overviews of some of the misattunements and misalignments that happen to most of us at some point in our development.
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D. psychologist and certified EFT couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I help people make sense of their life in the context of their past and overcome the many little developmental traumas that are at the root of most of our psychological problems.