Friday, January 20, 2012

Psychological Immobility

Sometimes friends and acquaintances, knowing I'm a psychotherapist, will ask me what I most disliked hearing in therapy sessions.  I've been thinking about this lately. There are, of course, situations that raise major concerns for therapists -- like admitted or suspected child abuse, domestic violence or threats of violence against the therapist. And, through the years, I've seen those -- from a court-ordered pedophile to a client pulling a knife on me during a session.

But day to day, in most practices, such instances are unusual. In the daily practice of helping people who are sad, anxious or in conflict, several phrases that set my teeth on edge do occur to me. I can't speak for all therapists, but the ones topping my own list are:

That's just the way I am.
That's just the way I was raised.
It's my parents' fault because...

I dread hearing these phrases because they tell me that this is a person who may be allergic to new ideas, to the hard work of therapy, to real change.

That's just the way I am is often uttered by a spouse in marriage counseling. It communicates some unpromising sentiments such as "I don't love you enough to make an effort to change behavior that is contributing to our marital problems" or "I'm not changing for you -- so take me as I am or get out!" or "This is not MY problem. I don't have a problem with my behavior. You don't like it? Then you've got a problem."

This pronouncement signals a near certain immobility in therapeutic progress.  The fact is, relationship problems are most often fueled by habits and miscommunication by both partners. For marriage therapy to work best, both partners need to be willing to make changes in the way they behave or react to each other's behavior. Both need to want the relationship to work enough to endure the temporary discomfort of changes in attitude, behavior or ways of thinking. Some stall out of fright, some out of anger and eventually come around to making some marriage-enhancing compromises. Those who take a stand and refuse to budge, however, are destined for rough times ahead -- either with conflicts recurring in an endless loop or with the loss of a partner who decides that he or she has had enough.

That's just the way I was raised: While it can be charming to hear that someone was raised to be gracious and thoughtful and giving, carrying on the emotional generosity of a parent or grandparent as a living legacy, that's not usually the context in which this phrase is uttered in therapy. When a therapist hears this, it is usually an excuse not to make a positive change or take responsibility for one's own world view.  Too often, it is an excuse for perpetuating some of the least desirable traits of parents -- an excuse for snobbery or racism or toxic pretensions or reactionary thinking.

Once you're in midlife or beyond, you have both experience and perspective. You have some wonderful opportunities to create the authentic, mature you. While you'll always be influenced by your past, you have a choice to sift through what seemed true back then and either embrace it or discard it. You have the opportunity to examine what makes sense in this time and place in your life.

My friend Pat, for example, has come to this point in her life embracing the Catholic faith of her childhood -- faith that meant so much to both her parents as she was growing up -- with greater fervor and joy than ever before -- while, at the same time, being comfortably at odds with her family of origin's political beliefs. She has created her own unique persona by building on what continues to be meaningful to her while questioning the rest.

While it's quite possible to be your own person and share many traits, interests and opinions with parents and other family members, making conscious choices in these areas instead of simply adopting familial inclinations by default can bring more satisfaction and joy to your life in these years.

It's my parents' fault because.... This is a tip-off that a person is not willing to own or take responsibility for behavior that is proving problematic in the present. Very few of us had childhoods that bore even scant resemblance to "Leave It To Beaver" or "Father Knows Best" or the Huxtables. Some of us had alcoholic, drug-abusing, child-bashing parents. Some of us suffered from neglect. Some of us felt the pain of being the non-preferred child in the family. Some of us were children of divorce. The list goes on.

The pain of the past can impact the present in many ways. Certainly, some of the major tasks of therapy include finding ways to soothe that early pain, to help resolve issues that still burn within and to help you move on to new possibilities. But when a therapist hears "It's my parents' fault because..." we're hearing that you don't want to -- or feel you can't -- change the trajectory of past pain to embrace a more promising future. It can be more comfortable, at least initially, to blame your parents' mistakes for all that ails you in the present. But even if they're still living and sorry for the misery of your childhood, they can't change what happened then or what will happen now.

While very few of our parents were ideal, very few were truly horrid, through and through. When we can allow ourselves to stop blaming our parents and to see the shades of gray and moments of happiness in our past as well, we're on the way to healing and growth.

One of the lovely aspects of adulthood is taking responsibility for your own life and taking the chance to re-invent yourself. Sometimes this means being mindful of a painful childhood when making adult choices. For example, I choose not to drink alcohol because I come from many generations of alcoholics. I know the havoc it can cause in one's life and I don't want to tempt my genetic fate. On the other hand, I cherish certain elements of my past -- my father's wonderful story-telling abilities and sense of humor, my mother's warmth -- and choose to emulate these positive aspects of the complicated people my parents were.

The fact is that taking a stand and not budging, never questioning early values or continuing to blame parents for present unhappiness all keeps you locked into behaviors and patterns that aren't working for you right now.

Taking the risk of change can feel scary, but it can bring new life to a troubled relationships and more energy, excitement and joy to your life than you ever imagined possible.


  1. We've been reminiscing about our careers, haven't we? And what a rich trove that is for blogging, as long as we're extra, extra careful with the stories...requiring a degree of caution that will dissuade me from writing about the subject at all, most of the time.

    You know, one of the things I miss in retirement is the enormous personal growth I derived from helping patients struggle successfully with their own psychic pit bulls. (Metaphors running amok)as I helped others bulk up their mental health muscles, my own stayed toned, too. After three years of retirement, I could stand a tune-up.

  2. I so wish I could go to you for some counseling. You sound so wise and I love your posts! I learn something each time you write and I want to thank you for it! I have little time to comment much, but just know that I am reading and I love your blog.
    Have a great weekend Kathy!

  3. I love what you say here. No matter what each of us has been through, we have choices and don't have to be held hostage to the past.

    That was horrifying that you even had a knife pulled on you. Do you have a book of memoirs in the works? I'm sure you helped so many people (and still do with your insightful posts)!

  4. Thanks so much for your kind comments!

    Nance -- isn't that the truth? I learned so much and grew so much in my work with patients. Some taught me invaluable lessons and, yes, a certain amount of emotional nimbleness is lost when one isn't doing therapy regularly.

    Betty -- thanks so much! I really appreciate your reading my blog (and I love reading yours!) whether or not you have time to comment!

    Shelly - thanks so much! The two memoirs I'm working on now - one about childhood, one about Timmy the Therapy Cat (who did some animal-assisted therapy in my practice) -- don't really go into that. But I have another memoir in mind about the transition from journalist to therapist and the lessons learned.

    The knife incident is a quite a memory. It happened late in my 3,000 hour internship. In an appalling breach of protocol, my supervisor had decided to go home early and left me alone in the building (late at night) with a highly disturbed male patient. Seizing an opportunity to try to shock or scare me, he pulled a knife as a malevolent kind of semi-joke. I forced myself to seem very calm and told him firmly to put the knife on the low table between us. He did. I picked it up, dropped it in a locking file cabinet which I slammed shut and locked and then turned to him and said "Now let's talk about what that was all about."
    My heart was pounding, but I willed myself to stay very calm -- and our session went on. He said he was testing me and that I passed the test. Not one of my happiest therapy moments. I'm still aghast at the fact that my supervisor left the building (I heard her leave and so did he) in the middle of the session.

  5. Your post is so very helpful to me and so interesting! I am so very lucky to have had parents who loved each other -- were each others best friend and confidant -- nothing was more important to them than each other and their children. But I can tell you it's quite a shock to go out into the real world and find out that so many people are from very unhappy and unhealthy family situations and for me it has been difficult to come to terms with the pain and suffering that has been wrought as a result.

  6. This is so helpful! I worked as a teacher and administrator, and the same excuses would pop up whenever that person wanted to find excuses outside of himself/herself. I only hoped, at that time, that with time and experience, my young people would accept their role in solving problems.

  7. For a long time I have maintained that from about the age of 14-15 a person must understand the difference between right and wrong and must take responsibility for their actions.

    There may be reasons why this rule must be waived occasionally, in exceptional circumstances, but on the whole I think we must stand up and be counted. There is scope for understanding, forgiving, for encouragement and praise and kindness must always be included in dealing with each other, but we all have duties as well as rights.

    I always knew that for myself, even though I frequently wished it to be otherwise. It would have been so easy and desirable sometimes to blame someone else for my own misdeeds.

  8. Dear Kathy,
    Once again your clarity rings loud and clear here. So many people have come from backgrounds filled with sorrow and pain. I've seen that in my own family. But what I've also seen is that at some point--maybe it's when one is 14 or 15 as Friko says or maybe much later--a person, if he or she wants to mature into a contented adult, must accept responsibility for his or her own decisions and their consequences. The journey to wholeness is hard and that's why memoirs of triumph and renewal can be so helpful.

    Thank you for sharing your sanity with us.


  9. I finally took responsibility for myself - really and truly - last spring on a road trip through the midwest where I cleaned the tombstones of my mother's grandparents. For many years I'd heard, "Forgive your mother." In the Nebraska cemetery where I spent the afternoon, a new voice spoke. "There's nothing to forgive."

    Not my words. But I took them to heart. It's much, much easier.

  10. Just blaming isn't the point of facing what hurt us in childhood. Purging it to rid it from our psyche is the point. It instantly wipes damage clean like Windex from a smudged window. I have a sibling who refuses to talk to people directly lest they discover how angry she is if she accidently lets out the hateful thoughts really on her mind. Phoney surface smiles remind me of the movie "The Help," the women pretended to be happy but anger boiled underneath. To be free of the baggage lets us really live in the moment with true appreciation. Acknowledging our past isn't wallowing in if when we deal with it as part of our experiences that make us who we are and can forgive it and those who caused us damage. Understanding those who hurt us is also part of life's experience.

  11. OK -- I can comment on this one -- maybe my computer is possessed! I've heard all those things before -- I don't cut a lot of slack on that much more. It may be the way you were raised, but it doesn't have to be the way it has to BE. I really do think that every post you write is a primer for all of us -- in some ways, a wake-up or reality check. In other ways a primer for when we hear these things, so we can be guided in what to say. As always, thanks.

  12. Never been a Therapist but I can say that I've been cheaper than Therapy for a few troubled Friends that sought advice and wanted the opinion of someone who they knew cared. The thing I most hated to hear was, "I desperately want a Solution..." and then when a viable Solution is offered... knowing that they will not act upon it... but will continue doing the same thing and expecting different results. I always have to ask... "What are you DOING about it?" Because behavior tolerated is behavior accepted. At that point the topic is off the table for further and future discussion because it will become a perpetual cycle with no apparent end... because chronic complaining about any issue after a time fails to arouse pity and only serves to incite irritation. God Bless you for helping people with their Issues... it takes a Special Gift to hear so much drama, pain and negativity and react compassionately with consistency.

    Dawn... The Bohemian