By Kathryn Berlá, Ed.D.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
–Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina”
There is an expectation among many therapy patients–a misperception really–that it is a goal of therapy to get the patient to “talk bad” about one’s parents, or to assign blame to them for one’s problems. Many people are reluctant to acknowledge or talk about the complicated feelings they may have toward family members because they feel it is wrong or that it makes them a bad person. Some people are afraid that if they acknowledge their anger or disappointment toward their parents, that it will somehow compromise their ability to also love them, or that they will be unable to maintain a loving relationship with them. It is not uncommon for patients assume that, if they talk about “negative” feelings in therapy, that they then will have to confront their parents with these feelings and have some kind of a show-down, much like the ones seen on daytime talk shows.
It is a universal truth that our relationships with our parents are fraught with ambivalence. It is in the nature of human development to love, resent, be disappointed with, long for, idealize and despise our parents. In fact, during the adolescent years, it is common to experience all of these feelings toward one’s parents in the course of a few hours.
People come into therapy because there is something about their lives that isn’t working well for them. No matter what the severity or the particulars, the fundamental aim of therapy is for the patient’s life to work better, whatever that means for that particular patient. Psychologists know that people’s lives usually “work” a certain way because of how we relate to other people. We also know that relational patterns are almost entirely rooted in the patterns of our family of origin. Intimacy, affection, competitiveness, self-esteem, attachment, self-concept, identity, occupational choice, sex, choice of mate, and worldview are just some of the areas in our adult lives that find their origins in the relationship we had with our parents during infancy and childhood.
That is why it is imperative to understand the dynamics in one’s family of origin. It does not mean that one’s family has to be characterized as dysfunctional. In fact, I believe in happy families. I also believe that it is possible to grow up in a happy family with loving, supportive parents and simultaneously to experience times when one has not felt truly seen, understood, or heard.
Talking about one’s parents and childhood in therapy is not about having to identify dysfunction or inadequacies. It is simply about understanding the real dynamics that existed within the family in order to better understand oneself and to make changes in our own lives that help us to function better in love, at work, and with friends. No parents are perfect, and nor does any psychologist expect them to be. But ignoring the disappointments or frustrations one experienced growing up does nothing to help one adjust to healthier adult interactions with others.
As every family is unique, so is every individual’s experience of their family. Siblings who grew up in the same household at the same time can have vastly different experiences of family life. No one’s “story” is any more accurate than anyone else’s; our experiences are ours alone. A good therapist wants to hear one’s story, in one’s own words, because we cannot presume to know a person just because we have an outline of their history.
I am reminded of the line of dialogue in “Good Will Hunting,” where Sean the psychologist, played by Robin Williams, has an exchange with Will, his court-ordered patient, played by Matt Damon. Will has just given Sean a scathing interpretation of who Sean is based on one of Sean’s paintings. Sean comes back the next day and addresses the orphan Will’s approach: “You think I know the first thing about how hard your life’s been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? I can’t learn anything from you, I can’t read in some [expletive] book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in.” Sean’s point is that we can study all of the texts and literature that we can, but that will never really give us the story of who someone is. When I am working with a patient, I am interested in anything and everything that person experiences as a sentient being. Things that may seem mundane or small are all very significant to me when I am trying to understand someone. It is never boring; if someone really can start talking about what it is like to be them, then I’m fascinated. I’m in.
The process of therapy and recounting one’s past is not about parent-bashing, nor is it about glossing over our family’s shortcomings. With all due respect to Tolstoy, no family, happy or unhappy, is the same as any other. Whether in the context of therapy or not, the most fulfilling lives are the the ones where we can be authentic, honest and real with ourselves and those we love. Often, in order to silence the past, we need to first give it a voice. Sometimes, in order for us to really hear our own voice, we need to say it out loud to another person. We each must speak our own story, for no one else can do it for us. And I believe that to be unheard can be the very worst thing of all.
Kathryn Berlá, Ed.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Louisville. She can be reached at 412-2226 or at KABerla@aol.com.