“I’ll be home for Christmas and in therapy by New Year’s.” — Anonymous
Let’s face it.
For many people, the holidays really are not happy at all. Tinsel and trauma go hand in hand as countless individuals are forced to spend time with family whom they purposely have avoided all year. As the holidays draw near, so does the mounting anxiety and depression.
Of course, all therapists understand that our experiences at home growing up shape nearly everything about our future. In the first therapy sessions, I usually ask for information about my client's childhood experiences and the family members involved. I don't have to ask much more before many will begin feeling anxious, become defensive and even take an avoidance stance.
Without taking a good hard look at our family experiences – the good ones and the bad ones – we have little control over the lingering effects they have on us today.
If you don’t explore how these issues may play out in your current adult relationships, you’re likely to either relive the agony of your childhood or be unable to maintain healthy coping skills and relationships.
I’ve worked with clients, for example, whose parents were chronically or mentally ill, depressed, overworked, or stressed about financial constraints. These circumstances weren’t their fault. They did the best they could and deserve some understanding.
Let's first talk about the internalized parent.
Even if you think you’ve dealt with your parents’ issues and put them to rest, it’s unlikely because you have two sets of parents: external and internal. The external are your physical parents. Even if you’ve settled any long-standing issues with them, your covert internalized parents linger on. They become the undertow you may not see until you get close to someone in either an adult love relationship or close friendship. These internalized parents are what you project onto your partner.
Next, is the functional and healthy families.
In a healthy family, the two parents rely on and meet each other’s emotional, mental and sexual needs. They may have other adults who meet their needs, but maintain a boundary that lets them maintain their adult status and lets the children maintain their own. But the boundary is permeable: at times, the roles might reverse temporarily, with the adults acting like children or the children becoming the parents. In a healthy family, parents would seek help to keep their children from taking on too much so the children can go back to being kids again.
Let's take a look at dysfunctional families.
In a dysfunctional family, there isn’t such a model, nor is any adult even striving for it. The parents may step into the child's role and stay there. A child is not in charge; he or she cannot make decisions or block dynamics in a family. The adults are always accountable, never the child.
And of course, abuse and neglect are becoming a greater issue in families.
Difficult though it may be, clients quickly can single out past events of mistreatment, or not believing they were products of neglect, they may find this problem much harder to identify. As a result, they may stay longer in therapy to learn how to cope with these issues.
And last, let's not forget what I call "name, rank and serial number."
Not only do clients keep the family secrets but so can their parents. Parents feel they did the best they could and, usually, they did. But remember, it’s important that your parents own what they did and didn’t do.
You deserve more than “I don’t know” or “I did the best I could,” which is what I call nothing more than a simple name, rank and serial number.
I have worked with clients who remain angry with parents who have died and feel guilty about their anger. Being mad is normal and human. You counted on them to be around for you. Now they've gone and left, and you still need them. Feelings aren’t about logic. When they present themselves in therapy, our job is to validate them, understand them, and experience them.
Even though our parents have long since passed away, our internal parents may still be driving the bus, and there are ways therapy can help resolve these issues. Therapy is not about going back and getting stuck in past issues, however, most clients seeking therapy already are stuck by continually recycling unresolved issues.
Joe Kort, PhD, LMSW, is the founding director of the Center for Relationship and Sexual Health. He has been in practice for more than 30 years. He also is a certified Imago Relationship therapist, a modality designed for couples to enhance their relationship, and for singles to learn relationship skills. He specializes in sexual health therapy, including dysfunctions, out-of-control sexual behavior and sexual identity issues.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Kort, please call the center at 248.399.7447.
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