“The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you will see.” ~ Winston Churchill.
Archaeologists excavate sites in order to learn something about the past. The more we know about the past, the more we will be able to use that information in the present and in crafting what we want our future to look like.
Just how important is your past when it comes to finding, establishing, maintaining and cultivating significant interpersonal relationships?
I happen to believe we would be lost without some knowledge of our past. I also believe the past is what accounts for moments that swell inside, creating an emotional landslide of feelings, sensations, thoughts and even decisions. This does not mean that the here and now cannot also produce awe and uniquely experienced beauty. It likewise does not mean that things that happen now are benign when it comes to shaping the future.
Let’s take an example; something that is relatively normal in my line of work as a therapist:
We have a 12-year-old boy who lost his mother following a surgery that went wrong. It was a minor surgery and one that was elective. Mother had been diagnosed with cancer 11 years earlier. She was holding her own and the cancer had stopped progressing.
Mother and son had a wonderful relationship characterized by lots of long walks and time spent happily together just being alive. Mother and son also had a tumultuous relationship characterized by mother screaming, mother screaming profanities, mother saying to the boy that he was the worst child ever born, and the boy fighting back by developing a sophisticated vocabulary and intellectual arsenal.
Father and Mother met while they were in college. They dated briefly and then married. Father had a “feeling” that he would end up having to take care of this woman if she became his wife. She was sick most of their time together. She was angry most of their time together. She was unhappy most of her life. Father had a history of taking care of people. He was more than a nice guy. He was a giver of time, energy and hope.
Mother died. The boy was angry at his dad. The father was angry at himself. After all, he “kept her alive all this time.”
The boy only wants to play at his play station and the more violent the game, the more he likes it. The father has days he isn’t sure he can go on or that he wants to.
The boy is angry at his dad and disobeys, hits, kicks, slugs and throws things. He has a mouth of a truck driver too long away on a cross country haul. His sarcasm is like the arrow that finds flesh. He is wrecking havoc at school and the principle ordered him into counseling.
This is the past of the people in question. Now let’s fast forward. In the here and now the boy is grown up and he has started dating. He is twenty something. The dad is alive and he has been dating and hasn’t found the “right” woman yet.
The now grown boy is intelligent, handsome, charismatic and reactive. He dates beautiful women and most of them find him to be the man they were looking to meet and perhaps marry. The grown boy (let’s call him Hank) can’t get rid of his dead mother. He is able to attract these wonderful women and then he just has to start arguments. He becomes sarcastic, critical, and when angry or disgruntled he retreats to his computer monitor to blow up people and wildlife in Red Dead Redemption.
He says it is their fault. He says this happens every time he gets close to a woman. He says they are all messed up.
Hank has an issue. His issue is that his mother died when he was a young child. He had a hot and cold relationship with her and this is what he has recreated with the woman who populate his life as an adult.
He is still angry, hurt and confused. He can find himself triggered by certain things that are related to his mother, but are now attached to the women he is with. Hank gets triggered when a woman whom he is dating does something that acts as a trigger to his Limbic structures. The Limbic system stores the past and sends out signals when anything of like-kind is presented in the here and now.
There are several triggers, which include: the woman stating an opinion in opposition to Hank’s opinion, the woman being in a mood, the woman getting sick with the flu or a cold, and the woman not going along with something Hank has suggested.
He has before him the challenge of matching memories and employing the useful help of his pre-frontal cortex to mediate the memories of his mother, his grief and his guilt. The guilt is related to the part of him that was so tired of mom being sick during his childhood that, at times, he secretly wished she would just die and go away. This is simply a child’s magical thinking and it isn’t supposed to come true. Sometimes it does.
Where Forensics are concerned, we want to connect the dots:
Memory Card Past #1= Mother Died
Memory Card Present #1= Girlfriends must metaphorically die. Girlfriends die by Hank becoming a jerk. They then leave him, which is similar to dying.
Memory Card Past #2= Mother was sick for a long time. Sickness is bad; sickness is scary.
Memory Card Present #2= Girlfriend Jenna has PMS and she is prone to catching colds. Jenna is going to die. I better leave before she has a chance to die. Best way to leave is by way of being a jerk and then she will leave me.
I think you get the point on these examples.
So, is Hank doomed to repeat these patterns or is he going to be able to employ his spectacular pre-frontal cortex and be rescued from himself?
More on this in the next blog!
Be well and take care,
Nanette Burton Mongelluzzo, PhD
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Last reviewed: 25 Jun 2012