I’m sitting in a cafe. A man, just beside me, is shouting at his son.
‘No playing on the slide today, J. You’re behaving like a child.’
A moment later the same man turns to his daughter: ‘You’re lovely,’ he says, in front of his son.
Then, turning back to his son: ‘You’ve been in a mood all weekend so far! No playing in the playground today. You’re going straight back to your room! You’re four years old and you’re behaving like a baby! You’re being embarrassing!’
Then back again to his daughter: ‘All right my lovely?’
THE MESSAGES WE GET
So let’s get this straight. If I was this boy, and had a sense of logic, I would know, and deduce, from the father’s education:
1. I am a child
2. I must not behave like a child
3. I must not behave like me
4. I am going to be punished
5. My sister is lovely
Way to invalidate a person!
THE REASON FOR THE MESSAGE
I don’t know the family, so I am having to guess what is really going on. But my guess is this:
Dad feels shit about himself. He takes it out on his son. His son is a reflection of the nice fresh person he once was, full of energy and inspiration. When his son shows energy, he is too tired to go with that energy and see where it leads, so he clamps it down with a force that depends on his own frustration, not the child’s needs. The result is a child who shuts up, and has no idea why he is shutting up, but knows that he has to keep shutting up in order to keep his father quiet.
THE CHILD GROWING UP
As the child grows up, he will question his father’s message. Instead of just believing his father’s authority, he will separate himself from his father, and examine the logic. He will learn to do ‘meta-thinking’, thinking about people’s thinking. Instead of it being about him, it will be about his father. He will conclude:
1. I am a young man
2. My father is frustrated
3. My father gives me inconsistent responses
4. My father shuts me down
5. My father prefers my sister
The father’s early invalidation of the child has become the child’s examination of the father. As long as the child has other role models to feed off, he’ll be fine. If he doesn’t, he’ll have to work hard, with his own resources, to guide himself to maturity.
HOW COUNSELLING WORKS
This offers a glimpse of how counselling can help. That young boy may get to 21 years old, and feel confused. He may not have worked it all out. He may still be left with the residue of that early invalidation by his father. He may present to a psychologist with the following feelings:
1. I don’t feel entitled to participate in the adult world
2. I fear other people’s anger
3. I find the world totally inconsistent
4. I just go quiet when I experience adversity
5. I always feel second best
We, from a birds-eye view, can see exactly where this young man’s feelings stem from. But it’s much harder when you are that person. For the young man – let’s call him Joe – understanding the cause of his malaise involves knocking his own father off his pedestal, which may be too costly emotionally. Frequently, clients present an ideal view of their upbringing, even when they have experienced a lot of behaviour like the father’s above.
AREN’T WE ALL RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR OWN ACTIONS?
You may retort: that’s all very well, but we can’t all go back and blame our childhoods for our mess.
I agree actually – I believe that it is not always necessary to do that, if we are willing to exist in the present and drop the legacy of the past. But for some people it is helpful to see the pattern, if only so they don’t repeat it with their own children!
HOW COUNSELLING CAN HELP US HEAL
I suggest there are three levels on which we can be helped by counselling, relating to our past, present and future.
Regarding our past, talking through our feelings, and relating them to the dialogues we experienced growing up, it is possible to see how we may have been educated rather perversely and inconsistently, by people focused on their own mind balance, not ours. Joe, in the above example, might trace his current feelings to a possible origin in his early experience. For example, he may come to sense:
- That the feeling ‘I don’t feel entitled to participate in the adult world’ relates to his father’s frequent comments in the style of ‘You’re behaving like a child.’
- That his feeling of fearing others’ anger relates to his father’s early angry controlling threats.
- That his sense that the world is inconsistent relates to his father’s persistent inconsistency.
- That his going quiet in adversity relates to his learned response to his father’s anger.
- That his feeling second best relates to his father’s petting of his sister in front of him, while castigating him.
I want to be clear that the aim of counselling is not to create some kind of monster client who hates their parents. It is more that we can, in safety, experience a sad realisation that our parents weren’t perfect, which can then turn to an optimistic wish to make things better in future.
PRESENT AND FUTURE
Sometimes we can bypass all this tracing of the past, and work in the present. Some clients don’t want to delve into the past, and it is perfectly OK to start with now, and begin afresh. It is just important, though, to understand that we may be, initially, held back by our learned responses and mental habits, until we learn to be free of them.Some clients don’t even want to sit in the present – they find it uncomfortable and embarrassing. They may be happier making plans for the future, and testing themselves against goals. This, again, is fine. But we must remain aware that sometimes, even if we are future-focused, our existing habits, and our inability to sit comfortably in the present, can interfere with our peace.
Today I saw a great example of inconsistent parenting. It reminded me of how adult problems can be caused by childhood experiences.
It reminded me of the purpose of counselling:
3. To help us, if we want to, to plan optimistically for what we want to do