Why do people come into counselling? The immediate reason can be stress and anxiety, feeling depressed, not sleeping well, problems with relationships, obsessional thoughts or actions, negative thinking or low self esteem issues – in short the symptom that indicates there is a problem that needs addressing in the same way a physical symptom can indicate there's a problem.
Under stress we usually revert to old well established ways of relating to situations. This is what I am calling the ‘well worn path’, which is a tendency to relate to these situations in a certain way, to look at things through a certain perspective. But sometimes it doesn’t work and we have to unpick what we have learnt and see how we didn’t have a choice growing up and dealt with the situation as best we could. But now, as you get in touch with yourself, and get to see how you are contributing to your difficulties, you can decide to do things differently.
Growing up isn’t easy. We are born with a certain personality, into a particular family and wider culture, and by interacting with this world, we learn how to find our way about in it. But most of us come out of childhood with some issues we haven’t been able to make sense of or resolve. They leave an imprint on us, or a tendency to act in a certain way, especially in particular situations and under stress.
Kiran grew up in a family where her parents divorced when she was nine and her elder brother went to live with the father and she stayed with her mother. The divorce was reasonably amicable. But it became clear in the counselling, as Kiran told her story, that she was in a relationship now where she was ‘always trying to help’ her partner and was beginning to see how this had happened in previous relationships.
So how does this link to her growing up? In the first few sessions Kiran talked a lot about her mother. This opened a flood gate of memories and emotions about how anxious she had been and concerned about her ‘mother’s unhappiness’ which centred around a job she didn’t like. As she told the story there was a sense that the mother was ‘doing something she didn’t want to do’ and that ‘she had never wanted to run her own business’. But her mother also made it clear, often in unspoken ways, she had to do this for the family. But the key here was that this was no longer necessary as the children were now grown up. Yet her mother still continued with the same negative attitude, while continuing to run her business. It was this realisation about her mother which played a part in Kiran looking at herself and her relationships.
So how did Kiran deal with this issue, as it impacted on her as a teenager given her personality and her talents? Well one talent or capacity she had was the ability to empathise or put herself in the shoes of the other person. Now this is obviously a talent that can be put to good use as was demonstrated by her wide circle of friends. But growing up she tuned into the ‘mother’s unhappiness’ and felt she needed to help her both practically in the business, and in ‘always trying to be there for her’.
As a child, given the impact of her mother’s unresolved needs, Kiran turned to what she does well, in other words being empathic, and tuned into to her mother’s unhappiness. But it left a psychological scar, or a tendency she took with her into adulthood, which then played out in her relationships, and especially in her relationships with men. In short, she picked men who needed help and looked for a woman who would provide that.
Looking back she began to see that this ‘helping’ pattern had played a significant part in past relationships and was able for the first time to talk about the stress and unhappiness she was feeling, and how sometimes she felt so claustrophobic and hemmed in, she nearly went into a full blown panic attack. This is in turn helped her talk about her relationship with her partner and see how it linked to the past. How as a young teenager she didn’t have the option of understanding what was going on and just devised a way of coping with her mother’s needs as best she could, given what I call her talents – in short her ability to be empathic.
There is a way out, and Kiran did change how she relates to these situations. But first she had to step back and become more aware of that ‘well worn path’ she has a tendency to go down. It isn’t easy, and it is hard work changing negative habits and it takes practice and time. But it is possible, and as you become more aware and create new ways of thinking about the situations you're facing, you can then make real changes in your life outside the therapy.
©2022 Kevin Rose
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