Why go back to painful childhood memories?

From media portrayals of psychotherapy, many people get a lot of negative ideas about what therapy is like, including overrepresentation of unethical therapists, but also including patinets spending hours upon hours of time crying over memories of childhood. In reality, some of therapy can be fun, in that there ideally is a lot of self-discovery and liberation along the way. Much of therapy is present- and forward-looking as patients and therapists strive toward authenticity, happiness, and health in present day and future experience, including refuting patterns of distorted negative thoughts.


Sometimes when we discover a distortion, we are able to quickly laugh at it and dispense with it, and stop a habitual cycle of self-reinforcing negative belief and impairment or inhibition. But sometimes, when the negative distorted belief is more profoundly held, is harder to refute, or even after exposing the belief to contrary evidence, it still sticks with us, it’s helpful to ask, “Where did this idea come from?” in order to really reject the distortion – crush it and throw it away, as Psychiatrist Dr David Burns discusses in his book, Feeling Good, sometimes the source of the distortion has to be challenged, and those sources are often childhood influences and events.


Here’s an example: Marilyn (not her real name) came to therapy because her work in a niche area of life sciences attained certain notoriety, and she was asked to present at some prestigious professional conferences. She was thrilled to be recognized, and also gratified that her discoveries were appreciated as having significant potential to reduce suffering from symptoms of a syndrome of medical disorders she’d been studying. The conferences also represented opportunities to enhance the reputation of the institute she’d been working in.


Unfortunately, every step in the process of preparing for the first presentation was torture for her. She was filled with doubt about everything from her Powerpoint slides to her wardrobe, to her ability to articulate her work and its implications, to how she thought she’d be perceived. After the presentation, which was well-received, she felt full of recrimination about how she could have/should have done better.


After laying out the problem, she sighed, and said, “I just don’t have any charisma. I guess my real value is in the lab – not in front of an audience, and I’m just expecting something out of myself that simply isn’t there.”


I asked her what emotion she associated with the idea, “I don’t have any charisma.” She quickly said, “Sadness, heaviness, and anger (toward herself).” I asked what “charisma” meant to her, and she told me it refers to a natural tendency to get people excited about oneself, or one’s ideas – being compelling, persuasive, and charming.


I asked her to look for any evidence that might refute that idea, and maybe even support the idea that she actually does have charisma, or the capacity for it. She was able to reflect that she was popular with students who sought out her guidance on science and also on personal matters, and peers who often invited her to social events and praised her sense of humor, and she reported that reflecting on this evidence made her feel better. But it didn’t relieve the “symptoms” of the invasive thoughts of self doubt when she had to make a presentation.


I asked Marilyn when she’d started believing this negative thought about herself, and also, more or less by accident, I asked her for examples of other people who she thought had charisma. She listed several celebrities, mostly movie actors. She then reflected that as a teenager, she’d been enthusiastic about acting, singing, and dancing and enjoyed performing in local community theater. She’d been told by directors that she had a lot of natural talent and potential, but her mother often told her, “I have ‘star power,’ you do not. You aren’t one of the pretty girls, and you are smart about science. Stick with that.”


Marilyn took this to be true, and believed that her mother was being kindly protective in telling her this difficult ‘truth’. And her mother was pretty and popular, openly flirtatious at social events, and would encourage Marilyn to “be useful” and set the table, clear away empty glasses, make sure everyone had a drink, rather than to mix with her peers or other family friends, telling Marilyn, “I don’t want you to feel awkward, Dear.”


The picture of the relationship between Marilyn and her mother emerged as one in which her mother was competitive with her, and subtly pushed her out of the “spotlight,” which her mother craved. Marilyn saw by example some of the hostile things her mother acted out toward other women who “upstaged” her, and she felt safer accepting her mother’s would-be protection, advice, and comfort. Over time, this became an unconscious but pervasive belief about herself.


To really fully conquer and free herself of this undermining belief, Marilyn had to face feelings of being a betrayer of her mother for acknowledging that her mother’s pushing her away and discouraging her were not benign, and for rejecting those messages. She had to acknowledge that she’d accepted the untrue limitations, and even get mad about it. There were a couple of tearful sessions, but Marilyn was able to liberate herself from those habitual self-disparagements, and began to enjoy cultivating a proud public persona which was a boost to her career as well as her social life.


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