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Reframing the Past

Because writing memoirs is so emotional, because it dredges up the past not only its raw, naked sliminess but also through a colder lens, it reminds me of what some clients go through in therapy.
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Because writing memoirs is so emotional, because it dredges up the past not only its raw, naked sliminess but also through a colder lens, it reminds me of what some clients go through in therapy. There are a lot of different reasons why people don't seek out or continue with therapy once begun, but I've often wondered whether it's precisely that process of re-examining the past through the lens of what you know today that scares people off from seeking the help they need. Sometimes the people who need it the most are the least likely to seek help because they're afraid of the truth. Sometimes it's because they are looking for a magic bullet or a pill that will solve their problems painlessly.

The problem with the past is that, unless and until it reaches critical mass, the negativity it generates is opaque. You expect to be disappointed or ashamed, you expect to hate or mistrust yourself. It's your normal. There are many reasons why people struggle with relationships or careers and fail to achieve their goals: sometimes it's bad breaks, of course. But more often it's because of lifelong negative behaviors that sabotage progress. When those negative patterns come from a history of being treated in certain negative ways, there is no way around it. You have to face it.

My relationship with my mother remained strained throughout my adult years, and while I didn't let her hold me back from becoming a writer or pursuing sexology (she was direly opposed to both), she held an emotional grip on me, enough so that I still sought approval from her, even when I knew I was unlikely to get it. When I asked her if she read the copy of my first book, Different Loving , she said, "Maybe one day you'll write a book that won't make your family ashamed." When I called her after being granted my Ph.D, she said "It's in sex? Maybe if it was psychology, I'd be proud." It took me years just to break the habit of calling her in hopes of hearing her, finally, say, "You did good." Because she never gave me that.

Still, I never felt neglected or abused as a kid. I thought my family was as normal as anyone else's. I knew kids who had it worse. All my basic needs were met and my expectations were tuned to the family I got. I didn't expect my mother to be more maternal because she defined what maternity was for me. People who didn't know her all said the same things: "poor Holocaust Survivor, you have to forgive her" or "you're over-reacting, everyone has problems with their mothers." The first time I told my all-American husband Will about the summer camp I attended, created by Holocaust Survivors for their children, he reacted with such surprise I suddenly realized how strange it sounded to someone who didn't spend their summer vacations commemorating the Holocaust. That too was my normal.

What was also my normal was believing the narrative of my childhood according to my parents. The way my mother told it, I was a happy child with a close and loving relationship with her (which went horribly wrong at some point - depending on her mood, that was either when I turned 10, when I turned 14 or when I turned 17 or possibly when I turned 21, though she once suggested it went downhill when I hit age 3). When pressed, she said my periodic melt-downs and migraines were the result of my over-sensitivity, and she'd point to an episode in my childhood where I ran into my father's closet while he was at work, and stood there hugging his clothes and crying, refusing to come out. She thought it was a comical example of my over-reaction.

It wasn't until I was almost thirty, at the end of my second marriage, that I went through a year of intense therapy and came out on the other side with new eyes. Suddenly, I saw the past -- and myself -- with a focus that brought all the facts into view. For example: I loved my mother but I can't remember a time in my life when I trusted her or felt close to her. Ever. She scared me when I was little, to be honest, she was so mean. Now, why was I in that closet? Since she laughed merrily whenever she told the story, I always assumed it was another example of my hilarious weirdness. Then I remembered: my mother had been screaming at me, driving me into a hysteria that sent me racing to the only source of my comfort available: the smell of my father's clothes and the sense of protection it gave me from my mother's wrath.

I was four. I wasn't being over-sensitive. I was being emotionally abused. There was even a word for it: gaslighting. One after another of the stories of my childhood came back to me - not as my mother told them now, but as they actually were. It hurt like hell, I confess. It upset the apple-cart of all my assumptions about my family, my childhood and myself.

To get a client past a struggle trying to rationalize a parent's behavior (and thus instinctively preserve the false memory of them as a wonderful parent), I always ask them: "Would you treat your own child that way?" If they answer "Hell no," we have a starting point for them to begin to accept that maybe, with a kinder, more protective parents, they would have grown up healthier themselves.

It's very hard for kids raised in dysfunctional homes to recognize the dysfunction or even to have the vocabulary to explain the experience. It's an epiphany when someone finally adds up the facts of their youth and reaches the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, it wasn't all their (the child's) fault if their parents were angry or violent people.

My client, R, had what most would consider a lucky childhood. His parents were successful and they lived in a beautiful house, lacking nothing for their comfort. But behind the walls, one parent drank and the other escaped into fantasies; the parents bickered constantly and often turned their anger on the children; and despite "having it all," R. grew up feeling emotionally bankrupt. At the same time, he could not shake the feeling that his parents would have been happier if he'd never been born. They told him that once during a bitter fight. When he thought of his childhood, he thought of all the bad things he did that made his parents seem to fight even more.

Now in adulthood, he still felt unworthy of love deep down. He struggled with confidence at work and he never got the dates he wanted. His childhood was, as it for so many of us, a weight on his life. At first, re-examining his youth made him even angrier. Suddenly it all came into sharp focus: their anger and his resentment, the helplessness and lack of a voice in what was happening around him. But, as always happens, past the anger and grief, getting to the truth of the situation is like a bright light. For R., it was accepting that he had no control over what happened at home and that he was limiting his own potentials by listening to the voices in his head that still told him he should never have been born. He learned to forgive himself and most especially to nurture and protect the child inside the man.

P, a quiet, middled-aged man, came to me after surviving a devastatingly violent, anti-gay hate crime. In addition to the survivor's guilt and lingering terror of what he had witnessed, the trauma of the event brought back memories of far older traumas, including fears and insecurities from his childhood. In the process of recovering, he naturally reached out to his family for support. Instead, he received a lecture from his father on his life choices which, in sum, seemed to imply that, on some level, he deserved to have his life blown apart by violence. Now he was dealing with two violent traumas in his life: the attack on him and his friends; and the emotional crueltiess of his father that had been eating away at him since childhood.

We want to think of all parents as being their child's cheerleaders and role models and care-takers. Not all are. It's a goal we should, as a society, always aim for; it's a goal, as a society, we don't achieve. But this isn't to put all the blame on parents, much less to say that adults can or should blame what happened to them as the reason they don't succeed in their own lives. I've always loved the Philip Larkin poem, "This Be the Verse", which begins,

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

It's tragically true, as Larkin goes on to say, that "Man hands on misery to man," and that if you were raised by dysfunctional parents, they likely came from dysfunctional families. At some point, however, it the job of every adult to break that cycle in their own lives by, in essence, becoming their own parent. This isn't to displace your real ones; it is to become your own advocate and compassionate care-taker. Blaming your parents is a stage of healing; forgiving them is another; but true success is measured by your ability to succeed and thrive in the life you have built for yourself.

That is, of course, the point of self-development. I've heard many people, people who call themselves realists and pragmatists, claim that it isn't worth dredging up the past. I appreciate their skepticism. I'm a great believer in living in the here and now. But how do you live in the now if the past is still a weight on your life, distorting your choices and making you doubt your own instincts?

Reframing the past is a crucial step towards self-empowerment. It means adjusting the lenses of our internal realities and taking a clear and focused look at what really happened, and not the narratives we were taught to believe. Only then, can we make a full break with the negativity and forge a future based on who we really are and what we can truly achieve.