Example from Family Life

How my therapy helped a young mother

A young woman came to see me hoping that therapy would help her with her depression. Although she was outwardly living an emotionally and financially secure life with her husband, children and with good friends, yet she was finding it increasingly difficult to feel good inside herself. Waking up every morning she felt low. Her children gave her little pleasure and felt like relentless hard work. Her husband was successful, earned good money but beside his energy and commitment to his work she felt sidelined, of no value.

How did she feel?

In her work with me, she got in touch with how it was for her when she was growing up. Her mother had been depressed, too caught up with her own unhappiness to pay attention to her daughter’s need for her. And so she herself had grown up believing that her feelings were unimportant, that she wasn’t really important to anybody. Her father was too busy in his work to pay her any attention so she had lost out there as well.

She realised that she was repeating her own experience with her children.

This is an example of how unhappiness can be transmitted down the generations.

How problems can develop

‘Families, and How to Survive Them’ is a very readable book by John Cleese and Robin Skinner about the painful experience of being a child in a family. But how about being parents? It isn’t a bowl of cherries for them, either. There are the times when all feels too much, too overwhelming. Despite all the possible wondrous times in family life there are so many trigger points for anxiety, unhappiness, depression, anger, even despair.

The birth of a baby, even when it has been longed for, can trigger a deep depression; where the baby feels like an unwelcome stranger and the responsibility feels overwhelming there can be attachment difficulties for both mother and baby.

There will inevitably be a reworking of the relationship between the parents. Two becomes three and three can feel like a crowd. The new father can feel more painfully left or abandoned by the mother with her new, passionate love for her baby than could ever have been imagined. A new mother, exhausted and feeling so unattractive, her familiar personality submerged in the business of being a mother may feel, when father adores the baby, that she has a rival for his love as well.

Stresses and anxieties can emerge and change as children go through different stages and teenage years can be a bombshell. The change from being a successful working woman, with a challenging and financially rewarding career to a stay-at-home mum can be particularly difficult.

When parents are basically secure, caring and sensitive to the feelings of others, such major life shifts can be navigated. But for others who are less secure, who feel threatened and anxious, relationships can become highly stressed.

Friends can be a great help. Books such as ‘Parenting From the Inside Out – How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive’ by Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell can help you understand your own life story in a way that helps you raise loving and resilient children.

When this self-help just isn’t enough, when feelings are inexplicable, then therapy can be a journey of self discovery, leading to emotional freedom. Old patterns of behaviour, developed years ago to protect against hurt – and very useful, even necessary, when first developed – can become self-destructive in the present. For example: A child who wasn’t comforted when young learned to push away painful, upsetting feelings because they just wouldn’t be responded to. The child then became deaf to their own feelings of distress and later on deaf to those feelings in their own children. Thus the family pattern of emotional neglect gets passed down the generations.

In therapy, in the safe relationship with the therapist, these feelings can be recognised, understood and worked through, leading to lasting change and emotional freedom.

How can therapy help with family related issues?

The young woman I saw for therapy was able to use it not only for herself, to understand and experience for the first time her complex mixed feelings for her much loved but emotionally neglectful parents, but also for her to understand and respond to her children. She was able to become emotionally available to them, to enjoy them, to enjoy being a mother. Her relationship with her husband also improved; he became more engaged with home and family now that it had become a happier and more alive place to be. She was no longer despondent and anxious but could now live her life in an emotionally rich and satisfying way.

ISTDP can help individuals reconnect with their forgotten and ignored emotional selves. When this happens there is a renewed aliveness in them; an ability to have intimate and rewarding relationships with others.

Families and How to Survive Them, by Robin Skynner and John Cleese
Parenting From the Inside Out, by Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell.