Unfortunately, no. Many psychological disorders are caused by, or at least connected to, patterns of past experiences.
We all come from somewhere – a family, a neighborhood, a religious background. The things we learn from people and experiences in our early developmental years can stay with us forever.
You’ve heard many people describe children as “sponges” who constantly absorb almost everything that comes their way as they are growing up: numbers, the alphabet, reading, working an iPhone, peoples’ names, the names of things and how to pronounce them.
Children also absorb other messages from the family: religious beliefs, self-confidence, holiday traditions, a sense of family closeness, how to handle emotions. All of these become part of a child’s personality, a part of his or her identity. These “incorporations” then contribute to how the child learns to relate to the world and to her or himself.
But, what happens when the child learns hurtful or negative things about the self, the world and the people in the child’s world? What happens when the messages from the family, neighborhood, church or school are predominantly bad, hurtful or negative? As we grow and develop we could be absorbing patterns of hurt or abuse. For example, a child may grow up in a home with a lot of anger, aggression, even violence. This may teach a child that the world is scary and unsafe. That belief, along with the emotions that go with the belief (fear, rejection) become part of the child’s identity and help shape his or her perceptions of the world and the self as the child grows into adulthood.
These thoughts and feelings of fear, danger or rejection may contribute to a depression later in life, or to anxiety when meeting new people or situations. At its worst, these built-in emotions and beliefs could block a person from going out at all. He or she could develop a social anxiety or agoraphobia. If the world is so dangerous, the person may think, I should just stay home and avoid any risk of anger, aggression or violence.
A different child may develop in a home where he or she is constantly criticized or blamed for things that go wrong. One client I knew was continually told by his mother that he “ruined my life” by being born! Another child may get the consistent message that she is not “good enough” for the parent no matter how she behaves or succeeds. Parents may be emotionally absent or self-centered, cold or unfeeling.
Of course, our “sponge-like” child will absorb these thoughts and feelings which will lead to all sorts of psychological issues later in life – or even in childhood. For example, a child who learns that the only way to get attention is by being “bad” will increase his acting-out or “bad” behaviors. He learns that negative attention may be better than no attention at all.
You may be 30 or 40 years old; but, the negative messages you have absorbed are still part of you and are contributing to your psychological distress. Therefore, we try to get a client in touch with memories, thoughts and feelings from the past. If there is something you would rather not remember or talk about – it’s a good sign that you should. It’s natural to avoid painful things; but, avoiding them allows them to linger, to grow and even to have power over how we act and feel in the present.
Your therapist may ask about your childhood and your family of origin to help you remember, rethink, and re-feel the troubles of the past so they will lose power over you. No, we can’t change the past; but, we can change its ability to hurt us by facing it and working through it in the safe space of your therapist’s office.
Importantly, your work with the past must include memories, thoughts and emotions. These will lead to new insights and connections about the story of your life. This will enable you to learn healthier ways of behaving, thinking and feeling unencumbered by the past patterns of negativity or abuse. We can use our new insight and knowledge of self to practice new behaviors that are better for us. We can practice assertiveness, communications skills or learning to say “No” when we are being taken advantage of. We can rethink situations, reminding ourselves to be more confident or that we have value too. One client I knew thought her only worth came from pleasing others and spent her whole life trying to do that. It led to her constantly being taken advantage of and not getting her own needs met. A depressing lifestyle indeed.
Yes, we all come from somewhere and are affected by our past – but we don’t have to be slaves to it forever.
Be a new you!
Dr. Dave Borsos
“Dr. Dave” has been a Licensed Clinical Psychologist since 1982 and has worked as a mental health professional in a variety of settings for over 35 years. He received a B.A. from Penn State in Journalism in 1975. Yet, after a few years working as a therapy aid for an inpatient, schizophrenic population, he realized his true calling and love — helping people with psychological problems achieve happier and healthier lives.
Dave then went on to Antioch University where he earned a Master’s degree in counseling in 1978 and later received his Ph.D. from Temple University in 1989. His training and experiences have always been varied and eclectic. He recognizes that people can be uniquely different in their problems and that a good psychologist should be ready for almost anything. His background includes training and experience in depressions, anxiety disorders, families, couples, adjustment disorders, schizophrenics and a variety of addictive disorders. He received a Certificate of Proficiency in the Treatment of Alcohol and Other Substance Abuse Disorders from the American Psychological Association in 1999.
Dave operates from an integrated model of counseling and psychotherapy using the best ideas and techniques from a number of theoretical pathways. Again, recognizing the diversity of clients’ backgrounds and problems, he works at using the best techniques for a particular person and his or her specific issues.