We all carry scars from our past, and perceptions of childhood that were either painted in the sugary-pink hue of nostalgia or tarred with a big murky streak. There will be of course, those who see their childhoods for exactly what they were – but for the most part, some degree of perceptual distortion is usually present.
For better or worse, so many – if not all – of the ideas we hold to be true about ourselves can be directly linked to lessons imparted in childhood. It was during this phase of life that we first learnt what spaces we were allowed to occupy, how much love we were entitled to and how much freedom and happiness we truly deserved – whether what we learnt as children is true/valid for our authentic self-expression and spiritual journey is a question that many are asking themselves now as adults. And very often those lessons were told in terms of parental actions and attitudes, rather than being explicitly spelt out and written down in public view (Melody Beattie).
In Codependency No More, Melody Beattie talked about these unwritten rules – which we so often internalize and take to be our model or basis of reality. And what we perceive is what we manifest and assume to be true – even if it doesn’t reflect who you truly are/can be. For example – a family that consistently neglects the needs of a child in the favour of a parent struggling with addiction or illness – can, for example – ‘teach’ a child that it’s role in life is to take care of the family, and not of her/himself. That tends to be a common biographical feature shared (as both Beattie and Norwood -see below- have explained) by those with codependent traits.
I recall reading about Robin Norwood’s experiences as a counselor in Women Who Love Too Much [a brilliant book that every person socially conditioned to be a caretaker needs to read!] In her experience, people whose needs were badly neglected in childhood, who had no ‘self-love’ concept, or who were forced to grow up too fast and become a mini-adult too soon tended to idealize their childhood and pedestialize/romanticize their parents and their wounds — in ways that sharply contrasted with any objective account of the way things were.
Focusing so much on ‘how good it was’ and how one’s parents struggled and suffered made for a great narrative, but one that often clouded her clients from seeing things for what they were – and how those themes repeated in their adult lives, particularly in their intimate relationships.
This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t acknowledge strengths where they were facilitated – but there is a difference between seeing ‘the good in all’ and distorting the facts. Very often this denial mechanism is the best ‘defense mechanism’ that the ego uses to avoid extreme pain as feelings of neglect, abandonment and other sources of wounding in childhood can trigger extreme responses – especially when brought to one’s awareness.
And most people, unless focused on developing self-awareness, taking charge of their lives, self-healing, etc. tend to run away from that kind of truth-reckoning as though their lives depended upon it.
To acknowledge what was – exactly for what it was – no more, no less can be an extraordinarily painful process – and one that is a precursor to ‘getting to know who you really are’. Psychologists consider this a part of ‘family-of-origin’ work, and you don’t have to be diagnosed with anything to go do it – I think it’s a useful exercise for all and a great vehicle for self-knowing.
Whilst I do not claim to be an expert on human psychology, I found these books as life-savers and path-changers. They helped me see my upbringing for what it was – the gifts and the challenges – and taught me so much about developing myself in more ways that I can express.
I suppose I’m thinking about all this with the upcoming shift of the Sun-in-Leo tomorrow (lots of focus on the Inner Child) and the reflective bursts of consciousness facilitated by Uranus just gone retrograde. Writing or journaling about your perceptions of your childhood and contemplating on how that has affected/molded/shaped your emergence into adulthood can be a truly self-revelatory exercise. This isn’t the same as ‘living in the past’, but it’s looking to the past to understand the present.
A word of caution: It is one thing to acknowledge things for what they were (constructive or not), and it is another to blame someone else for the way things turned out – or to use that as a reason to stay angry, hurt, etc.
I’m not encouraging the blame-game in any sense – If you do hold resentment towards your parents/caretakers – releasing that energy and attachments to that past can be of great use to you in moving forward. In other words – to forgive – and very often that’s the hardest thing to do, but also the most rewarding
Blessings to all,
Bairavee Balasubramaniam, PhD
Image: Story Time by Dave Parker – on Wikimedia Commons distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. Originally on Flickr (1).