Working with people for the past 22 years, I have heard many say, “I have been so hurt, abused, neglected and abandoned and sometimes these memories arise and I am just as angry as I was or couldn’t be then.” It is with the deepest empathy that I hear the pain, struggles and despair of those who sit with me. As we begin to dig into the events that have made their way into an individual’s identity, we can see that the facts, when separated from the event were interpreted by the mind of child or an unskillful abused adult.
Let me explain. A client, who I will call Shelly, shared with me how her mother never really loved or cared for her. Her parents divorced when she was 6 and her father was rarely around. Her mother was her only caretaker. Shelly’s story was peppered with recollections like, my mother never kissed or hugged me, she never helped me get ready for school like my friend’s moms, she was bored by my stories of how my life was unfolding, she just left my siblings and me to fend for ourselves, never caring to prepare meals or even teach me how to take care of myself. Shelly internalized all the cues she was getting from her mother as, you are not worth my time, you are not valued as human being, and you don’t have any significance on this planet. You get my point. As a young girl, she did not have the capacity to understand that her mother was living with depression. As she began to enter the world she struggled with maintaining friendships and creating real intimacy with partners. Although she was attractive and smart, she always felt “less than.” When friends or co-workers would complement her, Shelly would feel patronized and argue in her head that these were not truths. The story she told herself for nearly 30 years was that she was she was not lovable and not interesting. She was not able to see herself as others saw her, subconsciously always reverting back to the story which now was her truth; that she was neglected and unloved by the one person who is supposed to shower her with love and acceptance, mom.
The work of therapy is not to dispute the event(s) or get the person to believe it shouldn’t have been painful. It is to hear how the experience impacted the person (what they made it mean to them) to investigate the story in order to gather more facts that could then alter how the story could be interpreted. In the case of Shelly, we learned that her mother had struggled with major depression for her entire life as did her maternal grandmother and a maternal uncle. Helping Shelly to understand depression and its symptoms helped her to see her mother’s lethargy was a symptom of depression and had little to do with how she felt about Shelly. She also started to imagine what kind of upbringing her mom had as well. It did not mean her mother gave her what she needed as a child or that she did not experience real neglect but it helped Shelly to put into context that her mother may have done the best she could. The piece that Shelly was worthless and unlovable was not a truth. And just because Shelly now intellectually understood, doesn’t mean the “tapes” running the dialogue in her head suddenly stopped or changed. This is the work of therapy is exploring how we develop our beliefs, challenge faulty thinking and commit to changing the cognitive distortions that arose out of our past experiences that we interpreted as truths.
The experience remains the same, but the story we have owned doesn’t have to be our truth.
All blogs will note the author of the blog, typically someone from the therapy practice.
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