Psychotherapy offers a safe place to deal with concerns such as
- Childhood abuse
- Eating disorders and body image
- Grief and loss
- Relationship issues
- Parenting / infertility
- Life transitions and adjustment to change
- Work and career
- Workplace bullying
- Meaninglessness, direction and purpose
- Cross-cultural issues
- Spirituality and religion
- Personal & professional development
Through the process of therapy clients can learn, among other things
- How to be more assertive
- How to communicate better
- How to develop and maintain healthy personal boundaries
- How to develop emotional ‘literacy’ and skill
- Please note that you don’t have to have been abused or neglected as a child to suffer from anxiety or depression or have any of the problems listed above.
- It is possible to have trauma symptoms even without direct abuse or neglect (see more below).
- Everyone has a ‘right’ to seek psychotherapy and be in therapy.
- We don’t compare suffering. Everyone’s suffering should be important to them and to those around them.
Psychotherapy isn’t about blaming or judging parents!
Many people are reluctant to go to therapy because they are worried that they will have to ‘tell on’ their family. Loyalty to our family of origin is a natural instinct. We have evolved to place the group ahead of the individual because individual humans did not survive well on their own on a hostile and dangerous planet. Our ancestors survived because they were able to work together in groups. Each individual has evolved to feel that without the group they would not survive. Those who didn’t feel that way didn’t survive so well. We are descendants of those who did place the group ahead of themselves and did everything they could to be acceptable to the group and approved of by the group.
Evolution works by, well… what works best for survival. In other words, when a quality or an ability helps the survival of a species, those individuals who have this quality live longer and have a better chance of having children, who then carry their parents’ genetic heritage and pass it on to the next generation. Whatever has worked best for our ancestors’ survival in the conditions they lived in, is still with us today because we are their descendants and it is their genes we still carry.
It’s normal to feel worried about ‘airing the dirty laundry’ and judging parents or other members of your family. But the therapy room isn’t a court room and despite what you might have seen in movies or on TV, it’s not necessary to be angry with parents or blame anyone in order to get better. What matters in therapy is how we are now, or more precisely, what kind of brain we have, what’s wired into it and what we can do about it…
What does parenting have to do with the therapy you can do today?
Most parents do the best they can with what they know, but they can only take their children as far as they have come in their own development. Parents cannot teach what they themselves do not know and many parents have learned from previous generations the wrong lessons about emotions and about parenting.
Most parents don’t realise that they will pass their unresolved (unintegrated) stuff form their past to their children, whether they mean to or not…
Even parents who are otherwise loving and caring and are not at all abusive, might not know how to interact with their children’s emotions in a way that leads to what we need for good mental health and for the fulfilment of our potential. For children to grow into confident adults with a solid mental state and with the ability to fulfil their potential, parents and other adult caregivers need to validate all the emotions children have, especially their unpleasant ones, while children are still developing. If children’s emotions are validated all the time, they develop better neural connections between their prefrontal cortex (executive brain) at the front of the head, and their limbic system (mammal brain), which is where all our emotions come from.
Nature doesn’t give us those connections naturally (It’s a long story. I discuss it a little in my booklet on relationships). But nature does give us the potential to develop better connections through our childhood and throughout life. It’s better and much easier of course, if children are helped to develop these brain connections in childhood so they can grow into adults who have a better integrated brain. This will prevent them from having the kind of problems that require psychotherapy later in life and will also lead to a more peaceful adolescence.
If this was not available in childhood, it can still be achieved at any stage in life thanks to something called ‘neuroplasticity’. Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change its neural ‘architecture’, that is to create new neural pathways between brain cells and establish new neural networks. Neuroplasticity helps us change how different parts of our brain connect with one another and how they interact. This is what happens in our brain every time we learn anything. Without neuroplasticity there would be no point in trying to learn anything and there certainly will be no point whatsoever in psychotherapy…
How is this done?
Children can develop better connections if parents validate all of their emotions. Every time an emotion is validated, connective fibres form between the child’s limbic (mammal brain) and the child’s developing prefrontal cortex (executive brain). When children’s emotions are validated (e.g., “What you are feeling is OK”), the parent’s brain sends a message to the child’s limbic (mammal brain) that it has successfully communicated the message that the child is feeling threatened, to someone who can keep the child safe.
Btw, validating emotions doesn’t mean accepting every behaviour. Behaviours and feelings are not the same thing. Feelings are nothing more than information coming from a very old (200 million years-old) mammal brain. Feelings are how all mammal brains communicate information that is important for the survival of that particular mammal.
While all feelings are a legitimate and natural limbic brain reaction to what is around us, not all behaviours are OK. Parents’ job is to set boundaries for behaviour in order to protect children from themselves and keep them safe and also to protect others from them. But parents must never punish a child for feeling something! Unfortunately, punishing children just for feeling something is incredibly common, even now. And if parents don’t do it, then children are often told off for feeling things at school, by their peers, by teachers and by society in general. Our society for example, constantly promotes the idea that only a contented state of mind or happiness are OK. Anything other than that is judged as ‘wrong’ or ’sick’. Perfectly normal and very common emotions like fear, grief or sadness are all too often pathologised as ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’. Emotions are there for a reason and if someone feels something there is always a good reason for it even if it’s not immediately obvious what it is.
Human babies are so vulnerable that in order to survive we had to be scared of everything. On a dangerous planet it paid off to be scared of most things because most things were dangerous, especially if you are completely helpless… Remember that children have little life experience and they do not know what they need to worry about and what they don’t. They look to the adults around them to teach them what they should be afraid of or worry about, and what they shouldn’t. But until they learn enough to survive on their own, everything and anything can be scary. This is why adults must never ever add unnecessary fears or worries to their child’s reality. (When the very adults who are supposed to protect children and help them feel safe, are the also the direct cause of worry or fear in children’s life, it leads to complex trauma.)
In children’s brains everything is about safety and survival. When children feel safe and secure and when they don’t have to worry about anything, they can get on with the developmental tasks relevant to their age and stage of development. Humans are deeply tuned to fear. When children are afraid or are worried about something, they cannot concentrate on anything else other than survival. This continues throughout life. When we are afraid or distressed everything else takes a back seat. This is nature at play here as well. Survival comes first, before learning, grooming, bonding, creating, playing, artistic expression or inventing something new.
Every uncomfortable feeling a child has — no matter how trivial it may seem to others — is a message from the child’s mammal brain that it thinks the child’s life is now at risk. This is why no feeling a child has should ever be belittled, ignored, ridiculed, shamed, rationalised away, interrogated or trivialised (See my booklet on anxiety for more on this). Whether we like it or not, this is just how we are made. It is what 200-million years of mammal evolution on a hostile and dangerous planet have done to us.
In therapy we can still achieve significant changes to brain architecture at any age and this is really what psychotherapy is for.
To be able to help children develop better connections between the executive brain and the mammal brain, parents need to be able to act out of their own executive brain when they parent. No one should parent their children out of their mammal brain. It is mostly harmful to children’s psychology. Parenting children from the parent’s mammal brain doesn’t help their brain create the connections it needs to create. It also wires into the children’s brains everything that is unintegrated in the parents’ own mammal brain from the parent’s own history…
Children’s executive brain is in development but it doesn’t ‘kick in’ until about age 15. So children and young people need two brains to grow up well. They need their own limbic brain and their parents’/other adults’ executive brain. Adults must be sufficiently attuned to children’s feelings, especially to the uncomfortable ones. Adults must be present enough, enough of the time (no one expects perfection here) to notice and validate those feelings and reassure children that they are not alone and that they are going to be OK (See my bookmark in the Resources page).
Adults who live a life of escapism, who drink or are addicted to substances, who are not sufficiently available physically to their children, who are too busy, anxious or stressed to pay the right attention to their children are not available to parent their children well and are therefore not good parents. It doesn’t matter what they mean to do or what they think or say about parenting. It doesn’t mean they are ‘bad’ people or that they mean to do harm. Most parents want to do their best by their children. But if they are not present to their children enough of the time, they cannot do this vital job of attuning to, noticing and validating their children’s feelings. Parents with psychological problems raise children with (often very similar) psychological problems. It is not a moral judgement. It’s just how it is simply because of how our brain is. It’s science…
Adults must be sufficiently self-aware so that they can take care of their own emotional triggers and ‘unfinished business’ especially when it is triggered by their children’s legitimate feelings and reactions to their reality. It is normal for adults’ limbic brains to be triggered by their children’s emotions. But if adults are not sufficiently self-aware and do not know how to validate and look after their own feelings and triggers, then those emotional triggers will get in the way of forming the right connection with their children’s brains.
The right connection — enabled by attunement & validation — between the adult executive brain and the child’s limbic brain directly creates the connections inside the child’s brain! Parenting and mental health are physical things. They are not abstract nor theoretical.
All those abilities: attunement, presence, self-awareness as well as empathy, compassion, clear thinking and objectivity to name but a few, are all executive functions given to us by our executive brain. When parents and adults in general interact with children from their prefrontal cortex (executive brains) they also model its functions to the child’s developing executive brain.
Children feel scared a lot of the time. Their limbic brain is tuned to fear because they are so vulnerable. They feel insecure and frightened even more every time their emotions are not validated and when they do not get the correct reaction when they try to communicate how they feel. When a child feels uncomfortable about something his or her limbic brain already thinks the child is in danger. If the child cannot communicate this successfully and get the right response, the child’s brain escalates to even more fear. Now the child is not only scared because of the original reason that led to the uncomfortable feeling. Now the child also thinks he or she is on their own, that they are in danger and that there is no help!…
If there is too much insecurity in children’s environment and if children have no choice but to take care of their own emotions too much of the time, they will grow into adults who experience a great deal of anxiety. They can even develop symptoms of trauma, even if they were never abused or witnessed abuse.
Insecurity in children’s environment can also result from parents’ anxiety or stress because of financial or other life difficulties, health problems, relationship problems, instabilities, unresolved grief or trauma, mental health issues or anything else that parents haven’t dealt with, or couldn’t. Insecurity in children’s environment can also result from parents’ absence for whatever reason, parents’ drinking or other substance abuse, a personality disorder in one or two of the parents, having to provide emotional support to parent/s, having age-inappropriate responsibilities and other life circumstances that can cause a child to not have their normal emotional needs met enough of the time.
Anyone running their life out of their limbic brain is likely to find life very difficult. Even tasks people know they should be able to handle relatively easily will feel very tiring or draining. Over time it can lead to a sense of failure, despair, burnout and exhaustion. The limbic brain is too primitive to manage an adult life in a complex world. It’s just not meant for this job. It is a reactive brain meant for survival, running away from predators and looking for food. It doesn’t plan or make good decisions. It’s meant for reacting quickly to danger so we can survive another day. That’s why the limbic brain fails so many people and why so many people, even those with a reasonably good past, feel so anxious so much of the time.
Most people come to therapy because of their limbic brain, which is where we get our feelings from. People seek help when they feel bad and when they are suffering and they usually don’t want to continue to feel the way they do. This is understandable but it’s important to remember that feelings are always there for a good reason, even if the reasons aren’t immediately obvious. In the vast majority of people — my guesstimate is about 80-85% — the mammal (limbic) brain does not ‘malfunction’! It is working exactly as nature intended and functions according to what’s wired in it, which is partly from our collective human evolution and largely from the person’s own history. The human brain is wired mostly from our environment. In other words, if it’s ‘in there’, it’s very likely because it was (or is) ‘out there’.
Therapy’s job isn’t to ‘beat the mammal brain into shape’, to ‘train’ it or to change how it feels. Proper psychotherapy is there to integrate the mammal brain with the prefrontal cortex (executive brain) so that increasingly the executive can be in charge in the adult brain.
The job of psychotherapy is to train the client’s executive brain to do what adults couldn’t teach it to do when the client was a child. When the executive is more in charge, feelings do change as the limbic brain relaxes and life is lived more from our complex adult brain than from the ancient primate brain.
- When children’s emotional needs are not met the right way at any age, they will feel scared and anxious even if they don’t show it. They will grow into adults who suffer from anxiety (aka fear) even if they were never abused.
- Please remember that having needs does not make a child or a person ‘needy’! Having needs is normal. Human children are the most vulnerable of all the young of all the species of mammals on our planet.
- We need others not just to survive but also to thrive. A human being who is forced into a life of survival or existence only, will not do well psychologically. The human brain has more than a mammal brain and survival alone is not enough for any of us.
- Our childhood environment determines the way our brains will be wired, so having problems or emotional difficulties is not airy fairy or imaginary and neither is it the person’s fault. It is in fact a very physical thing.
- Having difficulties isn’t a sign of weakness and neither is seeking help.
- Psychotherapy is there to help us change the ‘architecture’ of our brain so that we can live a more fulfilling, adult, anxiety-free, whole and peaceful life.
© 2008-2020. Avigail Abarbanel.