What we do to each other

Be kind to one and other. – Ellen Degeneres

Since I started on my journey to psychologist I have always been most intrigued by what drives people to behave the way they do. As a child and even into my adult life, I have been curious. Curious about everything, about what makes things work, what defines us as human beings, what we continually search for, and why. I love gaining knowledge and information on the workings of the world, but mostly about what drives us as people to do the things we do, and why we get stuck at certain places in our lives, unable to move forward from our past in particular.

I believe that as people, and as psychologists, we should never stop being curious. Never stop learning, and never stop asking the questions that matter. I believe that psychology should be much less about academics and publishing, and far more about the people who come to us for the assistance they need to heal, and to move forward in their lives. It is no secret to my peers that I feel strongly about this. I feel that in many instances psychology has developed more of an elitist academic feel, that benefits the academics, and excludes the people who most need the healing. This realization early on in my career has lead to distancing myself from academics, and rather moving toward developing a deep understanding and empathy for the people who enter my practice. This shift has caused a reconsideration of many academic psychological principles that I had been taught and instead, has moved me toward a curiosity about the deeply rooted hurt, traumas and experiences that drive people to behave the way they do in their everyday lives—behavior that more often then not can create massive amounts of stress and discomfort, both personally and in the relationships with people we love.

My belief on the topic is this (may I take a moment here to say that it is not a new idea, but I do feel that it has been too far neglected): From my experience with people who come to see me, whether that be adults, children, teenagers, couples or families, there is always one variable which remains the same – unresolved trauma, usually from years ago. This trauma can be in the form of relationships (parents, families, marriages, siblings, romantic relationships, etc.) where the interaction with others had been so impactful and hurtful, that it has shaped our entire view of the world and of ourselves, to such an extent that when certain events take place in the here-and-now, it triggers these beliefs, which in turn triggers a plethora of behaviors and feelings, which are for the most part uncomfortable, and not very effective in daily interactions with others. This trauma can also be in the form of an event such a car accident, sexual abuse or physical and emotional abuse—in which case there is always the combined interaction with another, and which triggers the same behavioral, emotional and cognitive response that was experienced on the initial trauma. I have tried many times to resolve the surface issues, the discomfort experienced in the here-and-now, but I very quickly realized that if this deeply rooted hurt and pain, which has resulted from the interaction with others, is not uprooted, resolved and healed—whatever relief the person experiences from the therapeutic process will only be temporary.

And so I began to use this premise as a starting point for all consultations with clients—whether that be for couples therapy, individual therapy, child therapy or family therapy. I have found great success in this approach and starting point since, I have found that once these deeply rooted traumas are resolved, the surface issues simple disintegrate, because the person no longer has the trigger that leads to the ineffective behaviors, thoughts and feelings. As an example I would like to tell the following story:

A while back I had begun seeing a couple for couples therapy intervention. Infidelity was involved on the part of the husband. The wife was obviously traumatized and showed feelings of incredible anger ad disappointment. Most of the focus was on resolving these feelings of anger toward her husband and re-establishing trust in the relationship, as both partners wished to heal their marriage and stay together. Each session with the couples showed good progress, however at the start of each new session the couple had sabotaged the process at home, and the wife returned with the same feelings of extreme anger and disappointment. Each time, underneath all the anger, she would strike me as a little girl—completely thrown, afraid and overwhelmed by her husbands unfaithfulness. Absolutely unable to move from this place. This cycle of progress and relapse continued for a good long while. I realized a change of direction was needed. I was curious about the little girl I was seeing under the mounds of anger. I began to focus on this. It was my idea that that there must be a past trauma, a past relationship in her life that had never been brought to the surface, addressed and healed. That the reminders and thoughts surrounding her husbands behavior was the trigger for this past trauma, which may be why she is unable to move on from his transgression, and why the couple is struggling to heal. I began to explore this with the couple, assisting her husband to support and love her through the story of her past. And so it was revealed that she had been abandoned by her father when she was very young. Her mother remarried and her step-father was both verbally and sexually abusive—often telling her that she was worth nothing, undeserving of love, and that she would never amount to anything. This eventually became her internal dialogue. The things she believed to be most true about herself deep down. What this man had done to her was cause damage, deep damage which would need to be repaired if her marriage was going to heal. You see, her husbands infidelity brought to the surface what she believed about herself to be true. That she was indeed worth nothing, that she obviously was unworthy of love and that, as predicted, she would never amount to anything. Because of this, she was unable to move on from her husbands act for the simple reason that his behavior had brought her face-to-face with the deepest beliefs she held about herself. This became the new starting point. With the support and love of her husband, we moved through this deeply painful past trauma, dissecting and correcting each of these beliefs with their accompanying feelings of pain. This also continued for some time. One day, the couple arrived for their session. The wife looked like a different person. Her face had lifted and there was a radiance about her that you only see when healing has truly taken place, and the balance of power for the person has been restored. She categorically stated that she had let go, she had let go of the pain from the past. Finally. She could breathe. Finally. She was an adult woman, no longer a little girl. Finally. Quickly into the session she further made the realization that she could also let go of her husbands transgressions. They simply no longer scratched at her the way an old jersey would agitate and infuriate. In fact, it seemed that her feelings of extreme anger towards her husbands behavior had very little to do with her husbands behaviour —this was simply the catalyst in confronting a much deeper hurt and pain, brought on by another person, and causing very self-abusive ideas about herself. It was not planned this way, but this was our final session together. The couple had managed to heal their marriage, and they are today still very happily married. Free from the past. Her step-father’s words and actions no longer taking permanent residence in her mind and in her self.

I have often said that I have a job because of what we do to each other. The wounds we inflict on one and other. Since then I have begun using this as a departure point for all of the people who enter my practice. I have found great results. Permanent change. There are few things in this life more beautiful than to witness someone heal themselves and their life. To see them radiate with power and healing and happiness. It is the greatest privilege and reward. This also teaches me to practice kindness and patience in all aspects of my life, in all interactions I have, because I never know what deeply rooted pain and hurt another carries in their heart.