A beautiful young woman sits across from me. Twenty-five, single, college-educated. Great job, lots of friends. A life filled with parties and group trips on the week-ends. She should be smiling, but she is not.
“What is wrong with me?”, she asks tearfully. When I look into her eyes, I see that this is not a rhetorical question. She wants an answer. As her therapist, I know that there is an answer, but it may not be one that she’s ready for. So I ask her, “What is it about this promotion that makes you so anxious?”
This question is followed by a fresh burst of tears. “I have no idea. There’s no reason for it. I’ve worked so hard, I’ve put everything into climbing the ladder. I so deserve this. Everyone tells me so, my friends, my co-workers and my boss. They’re all so happy for me. But every time I think about going to my new position, I get panicky. I feel it now, give me a minute.” She puts her hands over her eyes and takes a few, deep breaths.
As a psychologist, I know that the roots of Elizabeth’s anxiety are not contained within this situation; the roots are in her childhood. And for her to be able to overcome the panic and function well at work, I’ll need to help her dig them out.
Eventually, as I ask question after question, Elizabeth suddenly starts talking about her fifth grade graduation. Here is her story:
It was a big day at school, filled with parents and pride. Each child had created a collage depicting his favorite parts of elementary school for the parents to see. Elizabeth’s had been singled out by the teacher as especially artful earlier in the day, and she was extremely excited for her parents to see it. Her parents sat through the graduation ceremony and clapped enthusiastically, with pride on their faces. After the ceremony, the parents had the opportunity to mill around the classroom to look at all of the collages hanging on the walls. Just as her parents had worked their way through the crowd to the spot where her collage was hanging, her father’s beeper went off. “We have to go,” he announced, urgently turning and taking her mother’s arm. “This was great, Elizabeth, but it’s time to go,” her mother said as they rapidly headed for the door.
Elizabeth obediently followed her parents through the crowd, across the parking lot and to the car, dragging her feet and looking down at the pavement. She knew that her father was a cardiac surgeon who saved lives, and that her collage was nothing compared to that. Since she understood, she kept her tears silent in the back seat of the car.
Fast forward, back to Elizabeth sitting in my office. She told me that she had not thought of this incident for years. Yet there was something about her current situation that reminded her of it. As she told the story, her tears came even more readily, filling Kleenex after Kleenex. “This is so stupid,” she said, blaming herself. “What am I, eleven years old?”
It was only after I helped Elizabeth connect the dots that she was able to see the source of her anxiety, and how it related to her childhood memory. It turned out that she had had many similar incidents in childhood, in which moments that should have been hers suddenly were trumped by someone else’s medical crisis. Through these experiences, Elizabeth had internalized the notion that her achievements are insignificant, and that she should therefore expect to be disappointed by them.
Over and over, again and again, I see intelligent, accomplished people fail to make connections between their childhoods and their current struggles. We human beings do not like the notion that those who raised us had such a profound effect upon who we are as adults. Most of us will acknowledge intellectually that it’s true, but when it comes down to owning it, we resist. Instead, we blame ourselves.
In 1951, psychiatrist John Bowlby first put forth the idea that the quality of an infant’s attachment to its mother actually had an effect on the personality of that infant as an adult. At first, his concept, which we now call ‘Attachment Theory’ was attacked and challenged by scientists for lack of evidence. But over the last 60 years, his theory has been proven over and over again, by study after study. Aspects of Attachment Theory have been fine-tuned by later researchers, so that mental health professionals now understand that even very subtle parental behaviors toward a child can often be observed in that child many years later, in adulthood.
I often wonder why Attachment Theory isn’t more readily embraced on a personal level by all people. Wouldn’t it help people like Elizabeth more quickly figure out for themselves why they are anxious, sad, angry or hurt? Wouldn’t we blame ourselves less for our struggles if we could more readily see that our reactions are rooted in our childhood? Wouldn’t that understanding make it easier for us to overcome our inner obstacles?
Here’s my theory about why we resist the notion that our parents have had such a profound effect upon us as adults: I think that if we allow ourselves to see the true impact that our parents had upon us, we may end up feeling disempowered, or even victimized. If we understand the true impact that we have on our own children, we may feel terrified at the prospect of having so much power. Since we are not fond of feeling either, we lean more toward blaming ourselves for our issues, and underplaying the impact which we have on our own children.
I have seen it happen many times in my office. As soon as a client recognizes the true roots of his current struggle, he is freed up to face it and overcome it. When he faces it, he is less likely to pass that struggle on to his children.
When we embrace the true power that our childhoods have in our lives, we become stronger. And so do our children.