By Amanda Craig PhD, LMFT
Author of the recently released book: Who Are You and What Have You Done With My Kid: Connect With Your Tween While They Are Still Listening
Working as a marriage and family therapist, one of the great joys of my work is helping couples and families feel more connected, and for the individual family members to heal hurt parts of them that lead to feeling more alive and responsive in relationships.
One of the questions I get asked regularly is, “how come I know the right answers yet I still don’t do the right thing in the moment”?
Well, there is a very simple answer to that question which leads to a very complex life journey. Experiences from our past may seem insignificant but eventually they come to the surface and impact how we feel, parent our children and how we love our partner.
In my book, Who Are You and What Have You Done With My Kid: Connecting While They Are Still Listening, I make this analogy:
It’s like this: you move into a house; perhaps you’ve even built it yourself. It sits on a piece of land. The view is great. What a future you see! The thing is, we sometimes get so caught up in the view we forget to look at the ground beneath us- The soil on which our house sits. Perhaps there are contamination or water issues, or rocky bedrock causing uneven ground. If so, our house will have problems. So we have three choices: ignore the problem and hope for the best (denial), move (denial, denial), or remediate the soil to create a solid base and a way forward.
You see, our history doesn’t stay in the past it may lay dormant and seem unimportant for years. Until we have families of our own. And then the soil on which we are building our family is revealed in our feelings and behaviors towards our partner and our kids.
It could be growing up with parents where we experienced feelings of judgment regularly or never being good enough, perhaps living with parents who had untreated addiction and mental illness which left us feeling neglected, abandoned or fearful. In addition, our soil issues can form from experiences of academic disabilities that went undetected, struggles with being bullied, or peer conflicts that left us feeling scared or alone. Maybe a painful romantic relationship that left us feeling abandoned or small. This isn’t an exhausted list but common experiences I see in my practice that stunt our ability to be healthy ourselves while raising a family.
Previous experiences are locked in the memory of our brain, when we start a family they are released because they are the foundation of what we find familiar in family-life. The good the brain hopes to repeat and the hurtful stuff the brain hopes to protect us from but creeps in without us even knowing. The problems start when our protective self uses means of yelling, withdrawing, impatience, substance use, over-functioning to cope in relationships and with personal feelings of discomfort.
How do you know if there is a soil issue that is impacting your current relationship with your partner or child?
The fact that you’re reading this far into my article shows that you have some motivation to be self-aware. Yes, self-awareness matters and is part of healing. If you are aware in the moment that perhaps you are acting out a past issue you will be better able in the future to do something different. In other words, if you can see a person or situation is triggering you to feel a certain way and then react, you are recognizing in the here and now your past is hurting your relationships.
The healing lies in taking the next step to gain awareness about where you felt this fear, abandonment, rejection, failure, shame in your past. As you connect the dots of yesteryear to now you transform.
It looks something like this: There is a part of us that gets triggered by others, and unconsciously we feel scared or insecure something bad is going to happen or fear we will fail. It is in these moments we react, quickly, to protect. The fact is we are protecting our younger self, not the self today and certainly we won’t be protecting our relationships- we will harm them. It is only the work of self awareness that helps us catch these moments.
When you can connect the dots you will approach situations with new thoughts and feelings. Compassion leads the way and relationships around you grow stronger.
This work is hard, longer term, doesn’t change overnight, but part of that complex journey. Every single person on earth has soil issues. We all came from a family, we all experienced k-12 education and lived through childhood peer groups and adult romantic relationships. Somewhere in all of that we probably hurt.
Remind yourself: you are not failing- you will not regret showing up fully- you’re not doing it wrong- you are not a bad person. Repeat after me: I can show and receive love in a meaningful way that I will feel deeply and fully.
Our path can include a variety of growth such as: spiritual exploration, trauma therapy, a retreat, rehab, reading, journaling, meditating, making amends, sharing our vulnerable self with others, learning to comfort ourselves with healthy lifestyle choices.
Through the journey we become stronger, we gain clarity, we get to know our adult self and we start to comfort the parts of us that hurt from so long ago. We remediate the soil. It comes naturally.