Mental Health Moment: Why I Want To Know Your Whole Story

27

From our earliest relationships, some of us may learn from our families of origin that putting others first is our prescribed role within the family system. For others, our role might have been highly restricted, leading to frustration, stress and difficulty stating our needs and standing up for ourselves. Maybe some of us may have experienced patterns of family dynamics where we were often placed in submissive roles, stunting us from showing our capabilities. Some individuals may recognize the ways cultural or religious scripts influenced the people who came before them in past generations to take more of a backseat when sharing our feelings and input. Perhaps if our caregiver was the authority figure who made all the decisions with little or no say from us, we may be carrying subconscious belief patterns that we should not have a say or that others are better suited to have the last word. All of these different presentations play into the dynamics of how we relate to others as the individuals we are today.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in early development, including being around caregivers who did not provide us consistent emotional validation, can leave many of us feeling unseen. As we grow into adulthood, we may still find ourselves doing everything we can to earn the validation and attention of the same people who disregarded our feelings. This can be so confusing. If we experienced inconsistent “hot and cold” parenting as a child, we may find ourselves making unstoppable efforts to secure emotional bonds in our relationships throughout our life, even with people who may not fit into it. It is common to experience a compelling need to provide satisfaction in a partnership, and avoid at all costs, vulnerable or awkward moments that may be viewed as less than favorable to others. This can also lead to a diminished interest in exploring who we are, and more interest in learning about what others want us to be. We can refer to this as the chameleon effect–when we habituate to change our presentation to fit in or please those we come in contact with.

Another way inconsistencies in early childhood manifest later in adulthood is if we endured a childhood where our caregiver was absent, neglectful, or unreliable and now we find ourselves fiercely independent. Do you know someone who is always pulling away from others and wanting to do it all on their own? That tendency can lead us to withdraw in the face of future trauma or in the possibility of being let down by others. Here, we are protecting ourselves, which is a very normal response to have and although there’s nothing wrong with autonomy and solitude, it leads to missing out on meaningful connection. On the flipside, fearing the displeasure of others can be a form of not acknowledging our own needs and it can also be a way to self-serve. We may feel we receive validation from others because of pleasing them, which feels good because we can finally attain that validation we strived for so long as a child. While there is importance in holding space and showing up for others, it is important to have awareness and not neglect our own needs. Sometimes too much of an emphasis on another person’s needs while ignoring our own can breed resentment and anger. How can we as individuals learn to show up for others without eliminating our own needs? What would it look like to give ourselves a permission slip to let our needs take up space?

One of the most powerful components to the therapeutic relationship is being encouraged to look at the totality of our experiences and how they can be consciously or unconsciously present in us and our environment. Working with someone who can help us become more aware of how we think and feel about our needs is powerful. The messaging and sometimes even trauma we have received by our primary caregivers has influenced who we are. A significant goal in therapy is to help get us back to a place of who we really are, our authentic self. This is why I want to know your whole story.