Updated: Jul 25, 2021
Written May 2013
In wanting to learn and understand about the use of other theoretical approaches in Psychology and Wellbeing I have come across a repeated accusatory tone towards psychotherapy and any therapy that dares to reflect on a person’s childhood experiences. I have seen it written that we are out to ‘blame parents’ for a person’s current problem. This is a complete misguidance and misunderstanding of why psychotherapists/psychologists/counsellors believe in doing this and I am here today to try and put this to right if I can. It will not be written in heavily theoretical jargon but in lamens terms for individuals then to make their own judgement.
I admit I can be somewhat cynical of some approaches that convey that change can be very simple. I won’t list them here as it may cause offence to friends and colleagues who practice in these. I am not out to accuse, just to defend. This cynicism does not come lightly but through experience. It is based on actual training and practice in some of these approaches, or reading and attempting to work with them as a Psychologist and for personal reasons. I have also seen many clients who come to me having finally expired all of these perceived quick fixes because change was only temporary. For many these approaches are very affective because they do not come with deep –rooted unconscious influences that blocks progress to change. But for others they are yet to have addressed the reasons as to why they became the way they did that required help in the first place and what is blocking them from creating change.
I also have personal experience of this in that I now have many tools to create change in my life having tried some of these techniques myself as the client. But, I still have a strong resistance to letting go to creating change rooted deep in my unconscious. I am aware, through long term counselling as part of my training, of what has influenced and constructed me, but my default unconscious way of being is still very powerful. We still stay with comfort and safety even if we know it does not work for us. This brings me nicely to why exploring the influences of childhood, of going backwards, is essential as a way to move forward.
We would all love to believe that we all have free will. But even that belief of believing a free will is good and right is a construct of culture. In other countries 'free will' is abolished and regimes of control and conformity is demanded of them. It is only from here, from a British frame of reference that we see that as being wrong . Some people under these regimes are at peace with it because it creates a sense of security and safety. This shows that 'free will’ is actually a fallacy and really we are controlled by our subconscious, which in turn is controlled by external constructs of life experiences and our external environment, of media, history, family, friends etc. However much we believe we are not conforming, buying into the adverts on tv or the preaching of inspirational speakers and figures etc. we are still buying into it against our free will because we also want to have a sense of belonging and direction.
Maybe it is our free will that is directing us to follow what we choose to follow, or is it actually our internal constructs from external influences throughout growing up that directs us towards, or even against a certain path?
As therapists when we are asking our clients about their childhood we are not just asking what were your parents like so we can blame them for how you’ve become. We understand them and their parents within their social environment, values and beliefs that surrounded them at that time. As an example, if you had to live and survive a world war how do you think you would deal with that psychologically? At that time everyone would have been living in fear and terror but if they all spent time expressing this and talking about it freely it would completely disable the nation. They had to just ‘get on with it’. There was little scope for choice of job or career, it was just about survival. So those 40-somethings that I see in therapy now would have been brought up with grandparents who had to live with a ‘stiff upper lip’ nation which, in turn would have influenced how they approached their own children’s emotional and psychological wellbeing, the clients parents.
However, Britain has changed and clients I see today have being brought up in a society where we believe we can have anything we dreamed of and chose to have. But, their parents were not taught to dream and believe beyond creating stability and security and so this may not have been encouraged in them. So there sits a conflict within themselves that suddenly they don’t ‘fit’ into what society is saying, that you have choice and opportunities to be whoever you want to be. They have not been encouraged to think about and know who they might like to be. It is important therefore to show that we are not blaming the parents, because it is completely understandable at that time why they would have had to have a ‘stiff upper lip’. But we can come to understand how that may have shaped us so that we can acknowledge this as not being who we are but it being a construct within us that we can then choose change.
By handing ownership to others of some of our constructs, our thoughts, beliefs and behaviours , such as our parents or even the ‘nation’, we can then start to recognise what is ours and what is others, starting to take ownership of our own ‘free will’.I see many adult clients coming to me with a repressed voice which is in conflict with everything else going on around them. Predominantly it is because their parents believed in, and quite rightly, instructing and guiding them into becoming good, safe and moralistic adults. However, in fear that the child may veer off this path they may become overly instructive and not allow any voice from the child. This is completely understandable. They then come to me as adults feeling as they have not yet ‘found themselves’ because they had not yet had the permission to ‘you have their own mind’. Because of this I have great concern about how much the government are putting so much emphasis on education and structure that soon children will spend little time in free expression. From as young as 2 and into the early evenings they will have to conform to the external constructs of ‘education’ systems.
In contrast if, as a result of the ‘hippy culture’ of the 70’s where ‘free will’ is encouraged with no boundaries or guidance, this can leave them with an overwhelming sense of choice and freedom. This can become very scary out in the big wide world. One client came to me following a violent attack because she had never been taught where the limits between safety and danger were because she was encouraged to explore this for herself. Also, no instruction, guidance or opinion by a parent can also leave a child feeling a sense that they lack a ‘self’ as it is them and them alone, proving that we need external figures to learn from and develop some form of blueprint from. A child will seek external influences to experiment with, try out, take on or reject. But if they get no response from a parent then they are left to work out completely what is right or wrong for themselves This leaves them at risk of relying completely on external influences to guide and direct them as an adult, leaving them with no sense of direction or purpose.
As a therapist working with children I encourage free exploration at an early age but within a contained setting so they can learnt o feel safe with it. As with parents they need to balance free play with discipline, teaching, and rule making that provides containment and safety. If they know that at some point it will stop they can then safely explore their ‘free will’ to a point of catharsis so they can start to find where ‘they’ are heading rather than what has been constructed around them. Part of this expression is drawing on all of their external experiences so it makes sense for them. So I am not saying parents have to change what they are doing. There is no right or wrong. Children, with the right environment, will work out how their external influences will work for them. Doing this at an early age can mean they don’t develop into adulthood with any overwhelming internal conflict. I would have to say we are always having to battle with working out what ‘feels ‘right and when we are feeling others are trying to influence and direct us. If as a child we were given space to connect with our own intuition and instinct then we can healthily negotiate this along the way. However some people can be heavily and easily influenced by external forces, others resist them to the point of creating an isolated and defensive being even when around people.Children will construct a model of themselves based on what their parents say or do and how they behave directly or indirectly. Most crucially this is done through modelling rather than direct learning. So a parent may constantly be telling a child they are wonderful, praising and encouraging all their good work. But if a parent has low self-esteem, or depression, or has a critical opinion of other people, the child will model some of these negative behaviours and internalise them as their own. Inside they don’t truly believe it but as a child won’t understand what is happening they start to live by the thoughts anyway. As an adult or even teenager they start to have an internal conflict, that something does not ‘feel right’ and seek to correct it, thinking they own both sides of the conflict when in fact one side may be their parent or society.Once a client, at any age, can become aware of these influences it is not then about dwelling on and blaming the parents for how they’ve turned out. If a client can learn to recognise and understand that it is not all their ‘free will’ but an unconscious influence of their parents, or other sources, then they can choose to let go of this influence. If they are completely oblivious to these influences how can they change something that is not theirs? Therefore we cannot ignore this in therapy. Parental and social influence is like an elephant in the room that, once invited in compassionately and kindly, not accusatory or blaming, the client can truly start to explore their constructed self, to let go of the external influences in order to start living by their ‘true self’.