During a counsellors’ meeting I attended earlier this year we reflected on a frequent and perhaps obvious question that can arise for anyone deeply unsettled about some aspect of how their lives are working. That question is simply ‘what’s wrong?’
Sometimes we can assume that what is ‘wrong’ is something fundamentally about who we are. A classic example is the fear that we might become exactly like one of our parents (and if one of your parents has had anything like a mental health problem you will know exactly what this means). It can be despairing to examine ourselves in this way, perhaps on the assumption that there might be some fundamental defect in our make-up.
But how much of the difficulty actually results from how we are made, and to what extent does it arise instead from our life experience? This ‘nature versus nurture’ debate is not uncontroversial, but it’s fair to say that the significance of our past experiences and earlier life environment has been considerably downplayed until relatively recently.
In my last post I referred to Judith Herman’s ‘Trauma and Recovery’ and the disempowering impact of trauma. But it doesn’t always have to be an ‘event’ trauma as such that has impacted us in this way. In the epilogue that Herman added to her book in its most recent (2015) publication she acknowledges the impact of early relationship problems and says that these can be just as responsible for later life difficulties. She emphasises this by adding that what did not happen very early in the lives of children could be just as important and that ‘the impact of early relational disconnection is as profound as the impact of trauma with a capital T.’
This means that key questions about how we got to be who we are might have to include, for example: What were our relationships like with our parents? How attached to our mothers did we feel and how stable was that attachment? Did any love we were shown feel conditional on how we acted or behaved? How were we treated within our early friendship groups? What traumas did we experience, at what stage of life, and how accurately do we replay them in our minds, assuming we can even remember them?
Tackling these and similar questions can be difficult and often painful. Sometimes we sense these questions are there for us but it seems impossible to confront them. The underlying issues feel like no go areas when you simply don’t feel ready to explore this territory. This is understandable – when going to places that appear threatening and scary it is important to feel safe and with someone you trust. We would rather avoid re-experiencing the pain of any past traumatic experiences. And so the way we interpret our experience of life – our ‘core belief system’ – becomes shaped around dodging these issues.
Kaitlyn Steele points out in Sacred Space (2014) that many of these core beliefs are developed in early childhood. She explains that they are generally pre-verbal and not fully present in our conscious awareness. This means that we can’t see them in a cognitive or rational way – we feel them rather than understand them, and this makes them ‘difficult both to access and to change’.
But difficult doesn’t have to mean impossible. So perhaps our no-go areas don’t have to remain that way for all time.