This is a question I hear a lot from people beginning counseling. As soon as we starting looking at life experiences from childhood and growing up, often times clients may feel like they shouldn’t talk about negative events they have experienced.Often times, they feel like they are simply complaining especially when it comes to talking about experiences with our parents. I hear a lot of people get stuck with this and feel they need to let me know good things their parents did so that I don’t think they are terrible people.
Acknowledging negative experiences from childhood does not mean you think your parents were “bad” parents, it means you see that they are human.
It is kind of strange working through past issues in therapy, because we do, to a certain extent, focus on negative experiences in hopes to understand how they affect you and how to change the impact. As a therapist, I absolutely keep in mind the complexity of your experience in childhood and certainly don’t think every negative events from childhood means your parents were bad people. The fact is, there’s no such thing as a perfect childhood or perfect parents. What I often find happens is we unconsciously suppress the negative feelings such as sadness or resentment, because they can be painful at times. Sometimes it can feel like you are betraying their trust if you say negative thing about them. Or maybe you feel you are telling an incomplete story of who they are and you don’t want to misrepresent them.
So why do we talk about these kinds of things in therapy? Well for one it’s really important as you begin this journey of self-discovery and growth to understand where you came from and the experiences you had growing up. There’s no way around it; your childhood affects who you become as an adult. The things you learn (or don’t learn) will affect you. Don’t get me wrong, our experiences affect each of us differently and don’t determine who you become, but they certainly will shape you. We all have our struggles and our issues. Understanding what yours are and where it came from is a big step to change some of those patterns and avoid potential stress that comes with it. Maybe it’s understanding where that veiled anger has come from? Or why you shut down emotionally during a conflict? Or why we keep having the same relationship struggles over and over again?
As children we get our template for how we relate to men from our fathers or father figures and women from how we relate to our mother or mother figures. For better or worse, that is the starting point all of us have for our relationships and friendships throughout life. This isn’t a bad thing, and it’s not unhealthy. As we come to examine the effects of our relationships (or lack thereof) with family growing up, we can start to understand more about ourselves and why we do the things we do. This will help you to break negative cycles, make more conscious choices, and be present in your life to a deeper extent that you ever have before.
Ironically enough, when we are able to acknowledge the pain and resentment we have held, we can start to process through it, and it actually opens us up to feel more positive feelings towards those we care about and actually let go of the negative. At the end of the day, whether we had the best or the worst parents, maturing as an adult means acknowledging your parent’s humanity. Their strengths and their weaknesses. Their successes and failures. They have them just like you do and understanding them will help you grow and mature.
As a therapist, I’m not interested in blaming others for your problems. Connecting the dots from your past doesn’t take away your responsibility to do something about it, but it does give you a sense of agency over your choices going forward. Don’t let fear of thinking negatively about family stop you from exploring, pursuing growth and healing.