This is one of the better questions I’ve received over the past couple of years:
Do you think that people spend too much time blaming their childhood for things? It’s all well and good to talk about the different ways our parents raised us, the good and the bad. I also know how important it is to understand the huge impact events of our childhoods can be, but when is it taken too far? At what point should we step back and take more responsibility for ourselves?
After reading this, I immediately went to Dr. Allison, a big fan of Freud and a researcher of childhood experiences as they relate to adult life. Despite the fact that she hates me and wanted to have me committed as a danger to others after reading my Twitter posts, she readily gave me some interesting thoughts on the subject:
“We live in a society that values self-sufficiency and independence, so the prevailing attitude is that we should just get over the things that happened to us as children and accept responsibility for our actions. I agree with personal responsibility, but at the same time a lot of the self-defeating stuff we do and/or maladaptive patterns we repeat are unconsciously driven and rooted in early experiences. Instead of thinking of it in terms of ‘blaming the parents’ and taking it ‘too far,’ we should redirect our attention to understanding what it must have felt like for us, as children, to experience the things we did. There’s no reason to take our residual anger and resentment out on our parents – there’s nothing they can do to correct the mistakes they made in the past – but there’s very good reason to talk it through with a therapist so that we can develop some compassion for ourselves when we make the inevitable mistakes that are part of our developmental pattern.”
Her take highlights one of the most important concepts in all of therapy: blaming versus understanding. We do way too much of the former and not enough of the latter, and this is what keeps us from taking responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and actions.
Our lives are, in many ways, simply a confluence of our biology and experiences. So how do you ask a woman who was beaten daily by her father and brothers to trust men as an adult? Can you ask a young man to simply say “so what if my mom told me every day that I’m stupid, that doesn’t make it so”? We are highly influenced by others, especially as children, and both the implicit (“you are worthless and therefore should be beaten”) and explicit (“you are stupid”) messages we receive can become entrenched in our psyches, even if logic suggests otherwise. This is especially true if the words have been repeated over many years. You can read more about this as it relates to yours truly here.
That said, you can ask people to not indoctrinate their pasts into the present. Sometimes this will be successful because we all have at least the capacity to reject what we’ve been told. But how many times have people said, “there’s no way I’m going to be like my mom/dad,” only to turn around ten years later to see themselves doing exactly what they swore against? Our past experiences often become part of our current repertoire, even when we wish against it. That’s why therapy can often take months or years to bring about change. You have to undo lifelong patterns of thinking and behaving.
When I work with clients who have had tumultuous childhoods, there is a specific directive I give them:
“You aren’t responsible for what has happened to you. However, from this moment forward, you are in charge of what goes on. It’s not usually a person’s fault that he caught the flu or a cold, but if he wants to get better he needs to take the medicine. Now is the time for you to take your ‘medicine’ and be responsible for your own thoughts and actions.”
In the young woman’s case, that means working toward a visceral understanding that not all men will treat her poorly, even if physical abuse is all she has known to this point. The man is required to not treat every mistake he makes in life as ‘proof’ that he’s a stupid person, even though that’s what he was trained to believe.
At any moment, if a person is trying to shake what he’s been told, what he’s seen and/or what he believed, then he is already on the path toward where he needs to be. There’s a flick of a switch that needs to occur over time, one that says, “okay, this is maybe why I’m like this. How do I use this knowledge to be something different?” It’s at that moment people move past blaming to a point of understanding, and this is where all of us need to be to have a better life.
Challenge yourself now to view your past as something to be analyzed and dissected, as opposed to simply a crutch or tool of blame to allow the status quo to continue. Push yourself to not indoctrinate your parents’ screw-ups into your life and demand more of yourself based on what you’ve learned from your past. I think you will like the results.