Recently in conversation with others I’m reminded of how large the ghosts of difficult early family events or other sad and frightening occasions can loom. In fact, it’s fair to say they never quite leave us. It’s not surprising that some (not all) mature aged men and women still play out in their relationships, early conditioning from childhood and traumatic life events. Even when they have their own grown family and grand-children, some people struggle to understand, let alone deal with the sometimes destructive and difficult patterns of behaviour that have been part of their lives for so long. And, so why do some, competent, sensible adults not recognise the basic pitfalls of their own way in the world?
It’s my view that often others (spouses, family members) make amends for them, that’s why. They protect them from the real consequences of the behaviour that has become tricky, unsettling and often very unpleasant. Having a caring spouse and a loving family can allow bad behaviour to extend beyond its use by date. The rest of the family fall into dysfunctional protective patterns in order for the habitual poor behaviour by one person to continue. It’s only when the protective family members experience their own fall-out due to life change or other difficulties, do they realise the heavy burden they have been carrying for the needy and misbehaving person in the family. Sometimes when family members or the main support person experiences their own exhaustion or feel they are at the end of their tether, a crisis is born, sometimes paving the way for change.
Back to the hurt person whose behaviour can be seen as difficult and needy. Blinded by the emotions of loss, abuse and for some perhaps trauma, the hurt of earlier experiences can run parallel alongside maturity. For some people they intuitively know they carry angst and sadness but have developed incredibly well honed skills to cover up and deny the disenfranchised part of their lives, I call it emotional survival. Some adults who carry early distress are vaguely aware of it most of the time. Wiser and maybe braver (more about this soon) adults, probably know they are fooling others but not themselves and sometimes reluctantly, seek professional help and support. This is never an easy decision and requires a journey in its own right. Ultimately it’s the only way forward, externalise instead of internalising is a great start but it’s brave…
Now I’m not suggesting that people with troubled backgrounds should necessarily be leaping into therapy and necessarily trawling over original traumas and hurts. However, being able to recognise when the hurt, sad, ugly, resentful, difficult, shameful, embarrassing, angry, demeaning, frightening, lonely, and a range of other feelings and emotions are present is the first step. It’s mostly because of the surfacing of these emotions that the unpleasant and tricky behaviour is triggered. It’s only when we learn to recognise these feelings and learn to tolerate the pain by self soothing and self caring techniques that we start to be in control of reactive (and often difficult) behaviour. We have to be able to manage our own behaviour by acknowledging certain feelings and emotions, owning them and dealing with them ourselves. Behaving in ways that put other people in charge of our own behaviour is full of unfortunate pitfalls for all.
And now to the brave. It’s never easy to recognise that we are carrying a burden and that it sometimes overflows and gets in the way. When the overflowing happens and poor behaviour results from it, such as avoiding others, blaming others, expecting our spouse to agree with our negative views about friends or family members, becoming verbally abusive and demanding and on it goes…isn’t it time to take a good look at why?
It’s easy to blame others. It’s easy to feel self persecuted. It’s easy to think others have it easier. It’s easy to feel that others have had more opportunities and on it continues…but mostly it’s all about self-pity. Self-pity, I believe, is a negative reinforcing thought process that allows someone to believe that they are perfectly entitled to feel and behave the way they do because life has dealt them blows, circumstances that they are not happy with. Self pity, it seems, gets in the way of a person making any positive change and can become a negative but familiar and addictive friend.
To really want to get on top of our tricky life bits we have to be brave. I think we have to admit (externalise) that we are sad, worried, unhappy, angry, disappointed and then maybe even courageously seek help. It’s not easy but it’s often the biggest most positive step we make in counteracting the ghosts of our troubled being…
Well said, Heather. Insight/enlightenment is generally hard won and without it the ghosts stay alive. I call them ghosts. A friend of mine called them dragons.
Thanks for your comment Mary. It’s interesting isn’t it, that once we can actually name (gain insight) our tricky bits it diminishes the power they have over us…Heather
Lovely piece of writing Heather – these issues are so complex and the entanglements that early life events can lead us into with those we love most can be heartbreaking and misunderstood. We have both been priviledged to sit with the brave souls who find their ways into our offices.
Thanks for your kind comments. You are so right, the complexity of earlier events and how they are played out is sometimes hard to fathom, often by ourselves and those around us…Heather
That’s a direct and powerful call to action for many of us. I’ve sometimes heard that one can only really grow in relationship but I can see too that they can also limit our growth. I really like the reminder for self-care and taking responsibility for ourselves. And I was able recognise myself as one who can justify behaviour with the help of our old friend self-pity. It does take courage to choose differently but as you say, seek help. We don’t have to do it alone. Thanks for addressing such a complex but important topic.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments on this topic. Taking responsibility can be challenging for all of us but I suspect ultimately, it’s essential for our emotional health and our relationships with others…Heather