Updated June 23, 2020
Looking Inward – Making Sense of Ourselves
Pain can cause us to seek psychological health
I witness a lot of pain in my work. People don’t come to see me because everything in their lives is working. They come to see me because something isn’t working because they are in pain. When I first sit down with someone, I’m looking for the pain. What is happening that is so difficult? What is the source of their grief, anger, worry, fear, despair, guilt, addictions, or shame? Why are relationships not working where partners feel betrayed, attacked, unsupported, or abandoned? What is keeping this particular person or relationship from peace, harmony, and love, from a sense of home, a sense of being enough? How can they improve their psychological health?
Therapy teaches people the language of self
How can I help? Therapy is actually an ongoing and repetitive process. It is the process of learning the language of self, an understanding of who we are, both in a felt sense, as well as our inner story. It is also a process of being attended to by another – in a different way, in a way that allows the brain to rewire, rebuild, rewrite, so that we can experience the world differently and thereby step into a different world.
What went wrong? Many of us can benefit from a new understanding of ourselves. What happened (or did not happen) and continues to occur that keeps us from functioning fully or reaching our potential?
Our history colors our perceptions
Historically, through repeated experiences with our caretakers, or other significant relationships, our minds have created models or ‘lenses’ that affect our view of both others and ourselves. These lenses color our experience. Everything that we have lived and experienced is wired into us. “Our brains are constructed to be directly influenced by their interactions with other brains.” (Siegel & Hartzell) For example, let’s suppose that you had a father who wasn’t very interested in you as a child or teenager. Later in life, if you are ignored, or in a relationship with someone who withdraws, the same feelings of abandonment, desperation, pain, or anger can be triggered which you then respond or react to – without knowing where it came from. This is how our past continues to live inside of us and recreates our experiences.
Although we can’t change our histories, we can “make sense” of our childhood experiences, positive and negative. We can untangle our wounds, our disconnections, and our defensive ways of relating to others. We can allow this understanding into our ongoing life story, which enables us to change the way we think about those events, and means we can modify their impact on us.
Human beings, among other things, are energetic and evolutionary systems. As both we and our world evolve, we gain new information, new abilities to change our experience and ourselves. For example, a metaphor for this could be as follows. Once upon a time, the people in a village noticed that whenever it rained, the banks of a river flooded and their houses were ruined. They decided to study what was occurring, to see if they could make sense of it and save their houses. Having studied the water patterns, they decided to change the path of the flow – barriers and channels that diverted the water, so that when it rained, the excess water has somewhere else to go. Their houses no longer flooded. They had to understand what was occurring before they could change it. However, we are dealing with emotion, not water. It is the flow of emotions that we get lost in, that flood us, or dry up and leave us disconnected. In therapy, we learn how to understand and reprocess our emotions, especially our feelings. There are several elements to this.
Understanding and reprocessing our emotions
- Understanding our ‘story’ by reflecting on our childhood experiences, the feelings that we had about those experiences, and how they are affecting our behavior now. Making sense of our life enables us to understand others and ourselves more fully. This allows us to have more choices in our behaviors and how we interpret and even choose our experiences. This also allows us to know where we stand, where we are vulnerable, and is a step towards knowing what we need, deserve, and can ask for.
- Noticing what happens to us moment-to-moment. In-the-moment awareness reveals the links between trigger, feeling, and behavior. We come to learn why a trigger, (my partner visits his friend instead of spending time with me) causes a feeling (anger/fear), a thought (he doesn’t put me first), and behavior (I scream at him or withdraw). This flow of emotion and energy is set in motion for a reason (perhaps our father never had time for us).
Over time the larger story and the moment-to-moment narrative interact and we come to understand ourselves more fully. We begin to develop better psychological health.
Stories inform us
So often I have someone tell me that they had a “good” childhood. And they believe that they did. But as we talk, something else emerges. Feelings. Feelings that they had pushed away such as shame, embarrassment, or hurt. Instead of recognizing these feelings, that person lives in a narrative that “it is all okay.” This is like living in an empty shell of an idea, but underneath, there is a lot more going on.
As stories emerge the feelings come into view. This person may not want to know that part of themselves, but if they are able to allow it, we can then see how they felt alone, or scared, or upset and how that impacted their sense of self. Until we reprocess our feelings, we don’t know who we really are. Sooner or later, a relationship doesn’t work, or we find ourselves anxious or depressed. There is a story with feelings connected to the symptoms. The symptoms allow for an opportunity to explore the deeper story, the feelings, and moment-to-moment shifts in awareness.
A new world
As we de-link the current trigger from the past, we can begin to make sense of why we react so strongly to something that actually may not seem like such a big deal logically. This is also where we can begin to understand what we need, why we are vulnerable, and how having this vulnerability attended to is healing. It is here where we step out from being people who are shaped strictly by our DNA and experiences and begin to step into the role of creators of our life experience, and nurturers and healers of those we love as we move forward.
Never before in history have we had this knowledge about the plasticity of the brain, about the impact of our experiences with our caretakers on our sense of self and the creation of our lives, our partner’s and children’s lives, and our world.
Look at yourself
Where are you struggling in your life? What have you historically been triggered by? How does it connect to relational issues, especially around nurturing? Write about what you struggle with, and where you think it may come from. Write a story about what it was like to be you at that time, and how that pain is impacting you now.
If you are interested in learning more about the brain and psychological health, MindSight by Daniel J. Siegel, MD is a good read. If you are interested in parenting, Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel J. Siegel MD and Mary Hartzell M.Ed is also very good.
To read my more personal writing and healing journey, visit Jennifer’s Blog.
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