In the overwhelming majority of individuals that seek therapy for various mental heath symptoms and interpersonal difficulties one will find underlying deficits in the client’s self that reflect suboptimal interactions with primary care-givers ear
ly in life. That same idea expressed in regular-person speak: one or both of their parents sucked. The parental-suckage continuum runs from blatant physical or sexual abuse and/or neglect on one end of the spectrum to an opposite pole, that of the sort of death-by-papercuts of the fully functioning self. Countless moments of misattunement, criticism, invisibility, and/or invalidation experienced at the hands of parents are ground zero for much of the suffering that brings people to therapy.
So, much of what therapy is about is helping clients “get over” what did and didn’t happen back in the day. A long-standing cultural assumption held about therapy is that participating in talk therapy--and the relationship formed with the therapist—is the agent of change and growth. I would argue, however, that there are key things that must be done by an individual in therapy—facilitated, of course, by the therapist—to engender the “getting over it.”
Here is that To Do List:
1) Modulate arousal states.
What does that mean? Well, people suffering from the most common symptoms are suffering from too much sympathetic nervous symptom arousal—anxiety, agitation, irritability, panic—or too little, in the case of depressive symptoms; sometimes both. Clients suffering from “too much” (hyperarousal) will need somatic strategies to calm the body. The spiking cortisol and adrenaline that erupt in the brain when a too-sensitive fear mechanism is triggered shuts down the brain’s executive functioning, which will prevent a person from being able to consciously appraise feelings, thoughts, and behaviors causing problems. Those on the “too little” side (hypoaroused) of the equation will need somatic strategies to light up the brain enough to be interested in—and be able to tolerate underlying emotions currently sleeping under the blanket of their “depression”—a change-oriented process. And when post-traumatic dissociation is an issue, clients will need somatic strategies to first “stay inside” their bodies/minds and determine whether hyper- or hypoarousal (or both) is the primary state to be modulated.
At the bottom of every giant bucket of anxiety or depression one is toting around is sorrow. Sorrow for what did and didn’t happen back then, sorrow for whatever awful things happened later in life as a result of early emotional deficits, sorrow for who one might have or did become, sorrow for how there will never be another moment in life in which it is someone else’s job—a loving parent’s job--to place our needs for sustenance, soothing, safety, and support at the center of their own universe. That was it; one opportunity. Much as we might wish it—and project our fantasies and fears onto others in our adult life--it will never, ever, be anyone’s job again to facilitate our “wholeness.” Tissue anyone?
3) Get Mad.
Yeah….get mad. Really mad. I don’t care how much you’ve come to understand your parents’ limitations as an adult; how sad was their own story; how they couldn’t have done more than they did given their own emotional, intellectual, financial, or cultur
al limitations; how forgiveness is a virtue you’ve been taught and how you’re supposed to consider “what Jesus would do” and model that compassion; blah, blah, blah. Yeah, screw all that for now. You gotta get mad. Crouching under your feelings of hopelessness, self-harming gestures, passive aggression, road rage, and the box of donuts you plowed through in a trance last week, is anger. Anger at how your parents’ emotional deficits are the source of your own. Anger that there is no requirement of demonstrated psychological competence for a person who decides she wants a baby (when even a fishing license requires an application!) nor Review Board that will revoke parental privileges when their suck-age dramatically undermines the quality of that child’s life. Anger that you’re here now, in the present, having to fix this mess on your own and they’re off somewhere wrapped in a self-deluded, protective narrative about your “character flaws,” and f*%&-ups…..that have nothing whatsoever to do with them. Yeah…like hell they don’t.
This might seem obvious, but in therapy you actually have to try. It takes concerted effort to do stuff that is different than you usually do, stuff that makes you feel uncomfortable; all of the maladaptive strategies you came up with to survive your feelings were designed to protect you from unfamiliarity and discomfort so yeah; buckle up. It’s going to take some work to stop doing all that and start doing other things instead. But ultimately you have no choice but to try because y
our emotional reactions and thought patterns are actually encoded in your brain—they are stimulus-and-response driven neural circuits that are reinforced with use, and maintaining equilibrium requires less intrapsychic energy than does replacing the ones with negative utility with new, more desirable ones. You have to go to war with your own brain--which is wired to do what requires less energy—if you want to “get over it.”
5) Let Go.
The good thing about big buckets of stuff is—no matter how full they are to start—they can be emptied. When anger and grief are recognized, validated, and enacted in therapy, their powerful hold over your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors begins to dissipate. When you feel yourself getting “stirred” remembering something about your parents in the past or in response to something happening with them today, and you can consciously “take a step back” in your mind, observe what is happening, and consciously detach from the emotional energy being activated, you’re o
n your way to “getting over it.” No matter how much you might long for some meaningful acknowledgement, confession, or apology from them, and how tightly you might hold to attending to their needs as an adult, secretly/unconsciously yearning to finally be seen, valued, known, and loved, embracing—and becoming indifferent to—the reality that it’s not ever going to happen is the cornerstone of your future freedom from “It.”
It is additionally important to know that you may never totally “get over it.” The extent and pervasiveness of the abuse, neglect, or chronic misattunement one suffered early in life, the intellectual, social, and emotional resources one was able to cultiv
ate in spite of it, and many other factors, will play a big role on how complete this task may ever be, and “mostly” may be a respectable goal. Getting over it can be a life-spanning project that may involve continuous effort keeping emotional dysregulation and hyper-or hypo-arousal symptoms at bay, rigorous honesty and accountability with one’s self, the need to re-establishing internal equilibrium after having lost it in some circumstance, and possibly re-emptying one of those anger/grief buckets that started to fill when you took your eye off the ball for a while, but having really done the work in therapy at some point will position you well to enjoy your life anyway…..even if you never completely “get over it.”