As a psychotherapist, it is clear to me that the main reason why people suffer is because their emotional growth stopped somewhere in their childhood. And when people stop growing emotionally, important parts of themselves don’t develop fully. We might say that important parts of their personality were lost somewhere in the emotional wreckage of their parent’s home.
The home is the place where a fundamental developmental drama takes place for each and every human being: One’s home is either an emotionally validating, understanding, and supportive environment wherein one is able to fully experience and express his feelings, needs, and opinions and thus develop him or herself fully or it is an emotionally invalidating or even traumatizing environment where one is not allowed to experience and express his or her feelings, needs, and opinions and thus can’t develop himself fully. To paraphrase Descartes’ famous tenant in psychological terms, “I feel, therefore I am.” By being allowed to feel and express our feelings, we grow, differentiate and develop a positive feeling about who we are. This is the psychological drama of what goes on for every child in every home. And as we will see, the stakes for living are tremendously high!
Sue has been trying to become a more spiritual person for ten years, but constantly experiences a variety of conflicts within herself. She almost never feels certain about her decisions, and often feels shameful after making them. She struggles with bouts of depression, anxiety, and insecurity. Her marriage is shaky at best and often feels angry at her husband and blaming him for not helping her enough with her confusion. She is always reading self-help books and going to self-development seminars, but can’t find the answer as to why she never feels good about herself or her life. She hoped that becoming more religious would “fix” her problems, but it hasn’t and as she feels more and more hopeless, she feels less and less motivated to be stay religious. She has spoken to spiritual teachers and friends who have given her great advice and wisdom, but nothing has really helped her to feel better. She has gotten to the point where she is considering taking antidepressants to relieve her pain.
I worked with Sue as a patient with the assumption that somewhere in childhood her emotional growth was significantly impaired, and thus lost her unique, creative self. Sue’s mother is and has always been a very needy and critical person. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Sue’s mother questioned Sue’s decisions, preferences, and judgment. She questioned and criticized her choice of clothes and friends. Sue was not allowed to have her own feelings or opinions around her mother. The message from her mother was, “My feelings and opinions are right; yours are wrong.” Because of the chronic invalidation she experienced as a child, Sue developed an unconscious organizing principle that, “It is bad to think for myself and make my own decisions. I must do what others say, because my opinions are wrong.” Because this organizing principle (often taking the form of her mother’s voice) was always active in her unconscious, whenever Sue tried to make her own decisions, she felt a tremendous amount of shame, as if she was doing something terribly wrong by asserting herself. This became her psychological destiny; a destiny that has produced much pain and suffering.
Hypothetically speaking, Sue had two options as child. She could have left home and rejected her mom’s constant invalidation in order to become her true self or she could stay and submit to mom which meant dismissing and denying her feelings and opinions in order to secure and keep a relationship with her mother. Obviously, an eight year-old is not able to make the choice to leave home. She must stay in order to survive. This is the tragic story that millions of people must endure as children and which dooms them to a life of never fully being able to differentiate from their parents and become their true selves. The limitations imposed by their organizing principles developed in childhood shape the core of their personality. They have stopped growing emotionally and have lost themselves in “the house of their father.”
Adults who are still imprisoned by, what my mentor calls, “killer” organizing principles usually go through life with one of three types of emotional struggles:
- A life of relentless, tormenting ambivalence, endlessly torn between his own true inner aspirations and needed relationships which seem irreconcilably opposed to one another. This is the path of wrenching indecision and noncomittment.
- Or the person may attempt to preserve and protect his core individuality by choosing to distance himself from others thereby adopting a pattern of resolute defiance and rebellion. This is the path of isolation and estrangement.
- Lastly, a person may abandon any hope of becoming himself and finding any authentic self-expression in order to maintain indispensable ties to caregivers and others. This is the path of submission and chronic depression.
Those who have lost touch with their true feelings and thus their true self suffer constantly. They often struggle with depression, identity confusion; fear of intimacy and closeness, emptiness, anger, oversensitivity, and generally, never feel that they are the pilots of their ship and in control of their lives. And like Sue, such people often turn to religion in an attempt to find inner peace and happiness. Often, religion turns into another type of slavery. But if it’s not religion, these people may turn to anything that will relieve their deep inner anguish, such as drugs, dependent relationships, and a variety of other addictive behaviors. Such people will almost always end up in marriages and relationships that compromise their individuality and authentic self-expression.
As adults, such people have a choice: They can remain lost in the emotional wreckage of their parent’s home or strive to leave their parent’s home and become their true self. The only solution I know to free a person from this type of emotional prison is to revive their arrested emotional growth. Real emotional growth means discovering how to experience and express one’s true feelings, needs, and perceptions. When this occurs, a person finds out who he or she really is, which reinstates the arrested emotional growth and which always results in authentic joy and fulfillment.
PRACTICAL TOOLS TO GET STARTED
Although, as I just mentioned, I believe psychotherapy is the ultimate way to free oneself from one’s limiting organizing principles, there are some tools that can start a process of authentic emotional growth. The following are some tools that can help a person to become more aware of his feelings, begin to reveal deeper pockets of pain that may be hidden from his consciousness, and begin a process of self discovery which might begin to free him or her from the crippling legacy of one’s childhood.
The most important tool I can suggest is to keep a daily “feelings journal.” Keeping a feelings journal is especially important for those imprisoned in their “father’s house”, because such people generally do not allow themselves to feel their feelings. So what you are doing by keeping a journal is giving yourself permission to feel your feelings. Something your parents may not have allowed you to do.
Track your most intense negative feeling for a given day. Once you’ve identified a particularly strong feeling, ask yourself the following questions:
1. What was the circumstance and what was the feeling? The feelings to be most aware of are: sadness, anger, fear/anxiety, shame, and guilt.
2. What caused the feeling?
3. Did this experience feel familiar, like you’ve been in a similar place before? Did it feel like a similar place you’ve been before somewhere in your childhood?
4. Can you recall a childhood memory when you felt the same way?
5. Describe the memory and what caused you to have that feeling.
6. Can you make a connection between the present experience and childhood experience? What can you learn about yourself by linking the memory and the present event?
7. Go back to the memory. If it were being shown as a movie, stop the action on the most powerful and intense frame. What is happening in this frame? What are you feeling and thinking?
8. If you could write a title for that frame what would it be? For example, “Little girl is verbally abused by father for taking a cookie before dinner.”
9. Is this message one that has continued throughout your life?
Note: Often our childhood memories indicate themes or organizing principles that play out throughout the course of our lives!
Therefore intense childhood memories can give us huge insights into key patterns that have and currently continue to shape our lives!
10. If you could rewrite the memory to make it have a happy ending and a positive outcome, how would your rewrite it?
Note: Being able to rewrite the memory indicates your potential for changing your destiny and handling similar situations in a more empowering and self-nurturing way.
11. Can you find ways to apply this rewrite to your present situation and your life in general?
Another way to apply these steps is to identify the person in your life who causes you the most pain or the person you are most afraid of. Does this person remind you of how you felt as a child with mom or dad? Is there a childhood memory that captures how you feel now with this person? Work the memory through using steps 5-11.