When I was a child, therapy was still considered mysterious and taboo. If you went to a therapist, you usually did not tell anyone and you probably felt embarrassed about it. Over the past twenty years, going to a therapist to address emotional issues has become the norm for most Americans. It is understood that we all have “stuff” to work through and benefit from having a place to share our fears and insecurities and learn to function in healthier ways.
When you sit down with a therapist for the first time, they will likely ask you about your relationship history. You are likely to spend a lot of time discussing your relationships with your family of origin and your parents. You might wonder, why are those childhood relationships so important, after all they occurred a long time in the past and those memories are ancient history.
Your early years were the time when your personality and ways of thinking and feeling were developed. The relationships that you had with your parents and siblings, whether those relationships were emotionally safe and supportive, whether your parents were calm or anxious etc. are the crucible for your personality and self development.
Even though you may have many memories from your childhood, you have probably forgotten what it was really like to be a child.
When you were a child, your parents and family were experienced by you as the very pillars of your universe. If your parents were for the most part calm and attentive, you experienced the foundations of your universe as being calm and attentive.
If your parents were anxious and insecure, you experienced that overwhelming pressure of needing to be a pillar of stability for them or needing to protect yourself from their intense emotions.
Being a child is an extremely vulnerable position to be in. In early childhood, your parents are the key to your survival and source of your nourishment both physical and emotional. Children will do whatever it takes to get what they need from their parents including adapting their personalities to try and connect with their parents.
The History Of Attachment Theory
You may be familiar with the concept of attachment styles developed by John Bowlby a British psychologist in the 1950’s. Simply put, Attachment Theory is the idea that the way that your caregivers related to you as a child forms the basis for the way that you interact with others. The reason attachment matters is that understanding your attachment is often a key to major breakthroughs in personal growth.
Once you understand it, you may see conversations and relationships with others in a whole new light. If your attachment style is causing you a lot of distress, you may be able to stop what you’re doing and learn new ways of coping. To be fair, this is usually a process that happens over years of effort.
As a Somatic Psychotherapist, in addition to looking at Attachment Styles, I also look for Character Strategies. This is a concept that is rooted in Reichian Somatic Psychotherapy.
Dr. Wilhelm Reich was an early psychoanalyst who realized that people unconsciously develop ways of thinking and acting that are actually adaptations to their earliest relationships.
Think about a tree growing in a forest clearing. The roots of the tree will naturally grow towards the soil that it needs while the branches above will spread out towards the sun and shade in the ways that are most nourishing to it.
You are no different.
As a child, you are dependent on your parents’ nourishment and you will grow in the way that offers you the best chances of survival in your environment.
Understanding this metaphor can help you understand why your early childhood experiences matter so deeply. As a therapist, knowing how you made sense of your world as a young, vulnerable child gives insight into how you adapted as an adult. With this knowledge, your therapist can help you determine how you want to act/behave in the future by helping you evaluate whether your old coping skills are useful or need to be updated.
This work is empowering; it’s meant to help you choose how you want to be in the world instead of continuing to react based on how you were raised. This is the work that allows you to change how you are in relationships. By choosing how you want to respond to life, instead of automatically reacting, you create the opportunity to be in healthier, happier relationships.
If you are suffering the effects of a difficult childhood, you may wonder if therapy would be right for you. When you are trying to find a therapist, you may want to ask them about their approach to working through attachment issues and family of origin related trauma.
If you are curious about Somatic Psychotherapy and want to know more about attachment and character strategies, please feel free to reach out to me for a free 15-minute phone consultation.