Many people who struggle emotionally look back to their childhood for answers. But what happens when we scour our past only to find a “relatively” happy, loving, nurturing environment without any significant trauma or neglect?
How can we explain our current emotional struggles if, in fact, there appears to be no reason?
Sure, we could say there are genetic factors that may predispose us to anxiety or depression, but a genetic predisposition isn’t a life sentence, it’s merely a tendency — a lower threshold — toward these struggles.
So if we’re not talking about a dysfunctional childhood or genetics, how come the struggles of adults who had uneventful, seemingly normal childhoods appear to be no less than the person’s from the broken, abusive, or defective home?
Saying this differently, how can it be that relatively “normal” parents who provide a secure and loving atmosphere wind up inadvertently causing the insecurity that invariably leads to a life of anxiety and depression?
And make no mistake, it’s insecurity that, over time, fuels all emotional struggle.
To understand this paradox, you should understand that not all anxiety and depression are a result of a completely dysfunctional nurturing environment. Far from it. The confusion often occurs when, for example, a patient in therapy scours their childhood assuming there must be something-something dysfunctional, alcoholic, abusive, or neglectful — about their parents.
You know, the really bad stuff.
Truth is that most often they wind up admitting, “There wasn’t anything so terrible about my childhood. I would say it was unremarkable. Just normal.”
So how can an “unremarkable, normal” childhood environment lead to anxiety and depression? Turns out that the word “dysfunctional” must be understood in a relative sense, just as with the word “normal.”
Both terms refer to behavior that occurs on a continuum and are not simple yes-or-no labels. As I learned in graduate school, these are statistical concepts, not people concepts.
For example, a “relatively” normal, but mildly indifferent, egocentric parent might have enough self-awareness (or sense of guilt) to recognize their profound selfishness and make a conscious effort to “do the right thing” by getting more involved in their child’s life. In which case, although the child may feel “relatively” secure and happy, they never quite feel secure and loved enough. As the saying goes, there is only one kind of love, but there are a thousand imitations.
Another example might be a somewhat over-controlling, worrywart of a parent. In this scenario it would be hard for a child not to become sensitized to life’s dangers — the “what-ifs” — thus setting the stage for a worrisome, anticipatory anxiety to emerge in adulthood.
Interestingly, most children of worrywart parents will often misinterpret mom’s or dad’s excessive worrying as an expression of love rather than what it really is: an expression of the parent’s insecurity.
I only mention this because oftentimes when reflecting on our past, we have a tendency to misinterpret, minimize, or otherwise excuse our parents. We may feel a sense of guilt or even shame for implicating them in our current struggles.
After all, our parents “did the best they could,” which is often the case. But nevertheless, we are shaped — consciously or unconsciously — by our parents’ insecurities. As the lyric from the musical “Man of La Mancha” goes, “Whether the stone hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the stone, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.”
But by understanding the similarities between your present-day insecurities and the environment provided by your parents (as well as other significant shaping influences) during your early developmental years, you give yourself an important edge.
You gain the ability to step apart from your own “acquired” problems and recognize how your here-and-now struggles have been the result of early learning and conditioning that has programmed your brain.
This new understanding puts you in a position to Self-Coach yourself to begin to untangle these entrenched, emotional habit-loops while creating new, more objective, healthy habit-loops, free of anxiety and depression.
Bottom line: Next time you find yourself ruminating and worrying just like your mother, or feeling pessimistic and downtrodden like your father, you’re in a position to choose to separate yourself from these emotional, acquired fictions of the past, replacing them with your own here-and-now facts.
Dr. Joe Luciani has been a practicing clinical psychologist for more than 40 years. He’s the internationally bestselling author of the Self-Coaching series of books, now published in ten languages, which deal with anxiety, depression, and relationships. He appears frequently on national TV, radio, and the Internet, and has also been featured in numerous national magazines and newspapers. Visit selfcoaching.net for more information.
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