Clients and friends often express their desire to become therapists. One friend in particular is interested in childhood trauma and its possible connection to post traumatic stress disorder. He says that he comes from a family of alcoholism and believes that the chronic exposure to parents who did nothing but assail each other and their children stays with him to this day and negatively affects his life.
Frankly, I enjoy the profession and I have encouraged my friend to pursue his goal. When I first started college, an established therapist told me, “No two days — no two hours — are ever quite the same.” It’s true.
When thinking about my friend’s trauma, it’s important to ask two questions when one approaches one’s parents’ irrationality. The first is, “What impact did this have on my present-day thinking, and therefore my emotions?” Second, “Where can I make a plan of action, moving forward in the present, to make changes in my thinking, emotions, and behavior?”
It’s important that my friend pinpoint things in this way, or else he and his future clients will end up talking endlessly about the past, but never really putting it into perspective so they can act, think or feel differently in the present. Therapists often use the word “process” when addressing an issue. My friend’s parents assailed him when he was a young child, so his processing might involve questions such as:
- “What kind of attitudes did my parents project about life?”
- “How did my parents train me to think, or not think, based on their example?”
- “What false beliefs did my parents hold, and which ones did I buy into, perhaps mistakenly, and why should I reject those beliefs as an adult?”
False beliefs can refer to many different subjects. For example, his parents might have held the false belief that his duty was to please them. Being alcoholics, they were probably not easy to please. As an adult, he now understands that their drinking led them to see reality in a distorted way.
There’s lots of online information about adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs), and what I know from experience is that there are some mistaken beliefs that they often absorbed as children, including feeling responsible for something when they are not. Another mistaken belief is that criticism from others is always right and that it’s always a threat. These thoughts can lead to feelings of victimhood and helplessness, i.e., the inability to hold others accountable for their actions.
The ACOA will often look for unhealthy or unstable people (like their parents) to meet their need for being loved. As one might expect, the people they find are no more capable of loving them than their parents were. These mistaken ideas can help define the area in one’s life where one can constructively improve oneself in the present. I address this throughout my latest book, “Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference),” available at www.DrHurd.com.
Emotions can be slow and difficult to change, especially when they stem from irrational or false beliefs absorbed early in life. In my view, my friend’s childhood years did not “form” him as such. He is not damaged goods. And hopefully, if he becomes a therapist, he won’t encourage his future clients in to view themselves in that way.
Whenever someone asks, “What’s wrong with me?” I always attempt to challenge that by replying, “There’s nothing wrong with you. There might be errors in some of your actions, thoughts, ideas or emotions, but errors can be identified, and they can be changed.” In that sense, there’s nothing wrong with any of us that we cannot change, as long as we’re willing to examine our behaviors and emotions rationally and objectively.
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