Most of us realize that our past experiences have a strong influence on our thinking and behavior. But we may not fully understand how earlier events are shaping the choices we make – and even the conflicts we get into with work colleagues, friends and loved ones.
Understanding more about how humans are made provides a good context for learning. It’s helpful to know that all of us have a unique neurological and biological system. Each of us also has a particular temperament, shaped by genes and later by life experience.
Through interactions with our families and those who cared for us when we were young, we develop a feeling of being loved and lovable. These experiences are encoded deep in our biology – and they empower us to become trusting, caring, compassionate, confident adults who are comfortable being emotionally close to others.
LOVE AND THE LACK OF IT
But that love and nurturance aren’t always available. Children who didn’t get the love and attention they needed often grow up feeling anxiously attached to others, craving intimacy even when they get mixed signals from others or experience outright rejection.
Other children who didn’t receive enough love and care will grow up to avoid attachment. They may fear intimacy because they fear they can’t trust love, and as a result, may withdraw to avoid loss or pain.
Constant criticism from parents, caregivers or siblings can work its way into our self-talk. This can make us feel invisible or abandoned – a feeling that persists long after the cruel words are spoken.
HOW OLD ISSUES LEAD TO NEW ONES
Therapists who work with couples and families often focus on how past hurts can shape our experience in the present. It’s more than just a matter of how we react to things, such as a fight with our boss or spouse. Unresolved issues can create entirely new problems – and often, we can’t see what’s happening.
For example, a couple is discussing a major decision they need to make. There is a lot at stake and the conversation is getting heated. One partner is expressing an opinion, but the other is not listening. S/he may be shouting or talking over the first partner, or being critical of that partner’s views.
What happens if the partner who’s not being heard grew up in a household where s/he felt ignored or abandoned?
Strong feelings of fear and anger will likely follow, making it almost impossible for the partner who isn’t being heard to stay in the conversation. No matter how valid the other partner’s arguments, these two are going to make little progress.
Notice that the issue isn’t simply a matter of listening skills, or one partner disrespecting the other in the moment. A hidden source of hurt is at work here. And if that hurt goes unaddressed, communication will break down between the partners. This can have huge repercussions, from chronic stress and anxiety to divorce. Children and others may be at risk, too – which is how emotional problems often pass from generation to generation.
RECOGNIZING AND HEALING THE PATTERNS
This is only one example of how past hurts can show up in the present, creating new issues and anxieties. The good news is that our brains and our spirits are highly adaptable. There are many forms of therapy that can help couples, families, and individuals address crucial issues and live more happily in the present. Therapy can help us:
- Look at our early lives with honesty and openness, developing a clear-eyed view of what was good and not so good.
- Learn the specific things that trigger strong reactions in us, based on issues that have gone unresolved until now.
- Communicate our feelings and needs clearly while learning how to calm ourselves when something happens that touches on a sensitive issue.
- Develop empathy for others, recognizing that they too have fears and anxieties from past experiences. We can respect their needs and encourage them to cope positively when past hurts show up in the present.
BUILDING THE SKILLS AND INSIGHTS YOU NEED
As an experienced therapist working in the Edmonton area, I have helped hundreds of couples and individuals looking for effective ways to deal with past hurts. Therapy, combined with exercises you can use outside the office, will strengthen your coping skills. If you are looking for a seasoned counsellor to help you get started, please contact me today.