Looking Into Our Past

Q: When I was in therapy there was much focus on looking at what went wrong in my childhood. In the United States most people seem very quick to talk about what they don’t like about their mother. In India we are much more respectful of our parents and how they are. Isn’t there a therapy that focuses more on what was good about our parents and upbringing?

A: You raise an interesting point that has several aspects to it. Psychotherapy, as we know it in the West, evolved out of Freud’s patients who had serious psychological symptoms. Thus, the first doctor of psychology observed the pathological levels of human behavior. This put a negative slant on future psychological exploration. Since the 1960s, other psychological schools such as the humanistic and transpersonal, have evolved out of the human potential movement. Given the strong influence of Eastern spirituality—yoga, Buddhism, and other meditative approaches—psychology is now integrating higher, more positive levels of the human mind. As you may recall, in the 1990s many of the bestsellers had the words “soul,” “journey,” and “inner” in their titles.

This exploration into the depth of the human psyche has greatly expanded approaches to counseling. Nonetheless, because we are greatly shaped by our mothers and fathers, we need to examine, at some point in our self-development, our years of growing up in our families. Most people want to move on and avoid the painful experiences of family life. (“Whatever happened is over now; I just want to live in the present.”) But living in the moment isn’t as easy as a decision because our very psychological make-up is rooted in the past. Most people are essentially repeating familial experiences in their new relationships. By looking into our earlier years, we can understand why we choose certain relationships and how we can grow out of dysfunctional patterns.

In the Indian culture parents are like gods—to be respected, obeyed, and served. Parents, likewise, especially mothers, are expected to deny their own preferences and focus more wholly on the children’s needs. Thus, an obligatory circle is created. In India this is usually not questioned. Although they find it satisfying on one level, children and parents routinely complain about such an arrangement. Resentment often builds up. In certain cases, children have been verbally or physically abused.

In psychotherapy, the effects of the various aspects of the parent-child bond and relationship are talked about. Since people usually go into therapy because they are struggling with issues, there is a focus on what didn’t work. This is an important phase in therapy, but it shouldn’t end here. Its goal is to free us from self-images and conditioning that are limiting us from being fully ourselves. As we feel more empowered, we also accept our histories as part of the texture of our complex life. At this stage, there is less blame and more acceptance and appreciation of our parents, with their attempts to raise us in the way they knew.

Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393. www.wholenesstherapy.com

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