Margaret Meinecke, LCSW, CAC III
Throughout history, humans have been interested in the stories of their predecessors and have learned from previous generations the problem solving skills necessary for survival. Like all animals, the young develop their abilities by modeling the behaviors of their elders. By their conscious, deliberate questioning and the less obvious mimicry of their parents and older siblings, children begin to understand and influence their environment.
Collected and practiced over time, the skill set developed will serve them although they may be quite unaware about it ‘s origin or development. For example, while a child may well know that they learned to cook by watching a parent and asking to help in the kitchen, they may not realize that they also learned how to engage in conversation, call the dog, stir a cup of soup or perceive a problem in their community. They can readily recall the lessons about how to tie their shoes or cast a fishing line because of the structured lessons, repetition involved and environmental cues lending richness to the tapestry of those particular memories. They are less likely to remember when or how they learned to see personal dilemmas as challenges or defeats and are not usually aware of the way they gathered information leading to their sense of themselves.
When adults engage in therapy to better understand their difficulties in relationships, they are helped with a number of clinical interventions designed to “re-wire” some of the cognitive circuitry that developed throughout their childhood. Very early messages about their value, delivered in the way their mother felt about the pregnancy, may be examined for its impact on adult ‘s current ability to self-evaluate, seek positive regard from others and trust those they love. How a newborn infant is protected and cared for joins with the many verbal and non-verbal messages from the parents and caregivers that instill feelings of safety and value. Later in life those experiences may be explored for clues about difficulties in areas of emotional intimacy and communicating and accepting affection.
Thus the work with adults seeking a greater awareness of their emotional health and intimacy issues related to key relationships is two-fold. Clinical exploration to recall the feelings of self that developed throughout childhood is known as the affective work. The examination of thoughts and ideas that evolved from early life experiences is known as cognitive work. By reviewing both feelings and thoughts, the adult engaged in therapy can then choose to challenge their system that lacks tools to effectively engage in satisfying emotionally intimate relationships.
Cognitive psychological work may include exercises such as life scripting wherein the family messages and habits of relating to others are closely examined and parents are discovered. Bringing into awareness the many subtle messages received in childhood and the thoughts and ideas developed from the family environment is often a first step toward changing the dysfunctional, and often unconscious, patterns of adulthood. Finding the origin of a faulty message, re-framing the message by understanding the limitations of the messenger(s) and practicing to incorporate a healthier, more accurate idea can be very liberating for a troubled adult operating from a painful or inconsistent set of childhood lessons.
Another clinical tool is legacy work in which a person is helped to examine the key relationships from which they have drawn life skills and information. In this work, an adult seeking understanding of their challenges will identify key persons from childhood, such as parents, caregivers, siblings, etc. and list character traits of those individuals. The list is then evaluated for the contributions from each person on the list to the skill set of the adult. Similarities are noted. The character trait list of the individual doing the work to understand his emotional “blueprint” is more readily available for exploration. Traits genetically transmitted as well as learned through experience are available for evaluation and change. Habits of thinking and relating can be changed through practice; genetically inherited symptoms, such as clinical depression, may call for medication.
When closely examined, most of the attachment and/or relationship problems of adults are rooted in their childhood experiences, which have contributed to the affective and cognitive life, exhibiting faulty thought patterns and emotional defenses. Understanding the experiential and inferential road map used to reach adulthood can bring clarity to the often murky picture of an adult who both seeks and fears emotional closeness with others. Affective work helps instill the feelings of trust in competent others. Cognitive work helps establish the thought patterns leading to more accurate assessment and self-evaluation and regulation.
When an adult engages in the clinical work of examining their use of the emotional and mental information from childhood, they bring into their control the choices associated with adult relationships and functioning. As their awareness grows, they gradually change the behaviors that do not support the healthy adult life they envision for themselves as members of their community, family and primary partnerships. Leaving the prisons of their past, they are freed into a world of possibilities where they can more fully and consciously enjoy their lives.
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