A common question people ask is where their problems come from. Why do they have sudden panic attacks at work? Why do they yell at their spouse when they don’t want to? Why do they lie when they mean to be honest? Why do they tell people get lost when they really want them to stay? Why do they choose to spend so much time with people who cannot help them to be happy? Why do they not have the motivation to get up in the morning to deal with their problems? The root of all these problems lies in childhood.
This answer appears surprising to many people, though. Most people tend to assume the reason why they feel uncontrollably sad, angry, or guilty is because of the situation or person immediately facing them. In fact, they often think it is all to do with the person or problem facing them and not anything to do with their childhood at all. The other person or the situation is making them feel sad, making them feel angry, and making them feel guilty (See “Who Makes You Feel?”). They are helpless puppets responding to the behaviour of people and situations around them. The idea that their now long distant childhood had something to do with it is actually far from their minds, if it is even something they are aware of as being a factor in their present unhappiness.
How do events that happened to them so long ago continue to affect them?
The answer to this is in logic. One of the laws of logic described by Aristotle is the law of causation. It states that everything that happens has a cause: A leads to B, which leads to C. A dog barks which causes a cat to jump which causes the cat to bump a vase and for the vase to fall and break. Each event follows after the other. Everything that happens is part of a causal chain of events. Nothing happens in isolation; the vase does not spontaneously break without something acting upon it.
Events that happen now will affect the future, but events that happened in the past are affecting us now in the present. Thus, the factors that most influence who you are as a person and how you deal with your challenges were events that happened in your childhood. Dealing with a relationship problem with your spouse might seem unrelated to a relationship problem you had with your father, but in actual fact, those foundational relationships in your life serve as a template for how you relate to everyone else in your life. If you’re a man and your father was cold and threatening to you, then you might be detached and suspicious of other people in general because of that foundational relationship. Alternatively, if you are a woman, you might be over-zealous in trying to win the affections of men because your father was so distant from you. The better you understand your childhood, the better you will understand yourself in the present. The better you understand your present self, the better you will be at dealing with your problems.
Take an example of, say, learning a foreign language at school. Did your parents discourage you from learning other languages? Did they ever help you study? Or did they even speak this language at home themselves? These different backgrounds will affect your ability to learn a new language now in the present. Knowing your past will allow you to decide how much time and effort you need to put into learning this new language. If your parents discouraged learning, you will need to spend more time practising than if your parents spoke the language at home. To make an analogy to relationships, if your parents had a healthy relationship, you will need to spend less time working on your relationships later in life because your parents modelled healthy behaviours for you, but if your parents had a bad relationship, then you must work much harder in the present to get the same results as other people in their relationships because you will need to overcome the dysfunction you learned from your parents. In other words, you will grow up speaking the “language” of relationships that your parents taught you.
Addressing the deficiencies in your childhood by self-reflection is the closest thing you can do to getting into a time machine and going back to change what happened to you. By studying those relationships, learning how they worked or did not work, you can undo much of the damage or neglect you may have suffered as a child. A girl might grow up watching her mother scream and throw things on a regular basis. That girl will grow up into a woman who thinks it is normal for mothers to scream and throw things. In therapy, that woman might discover how afraid she felt at the time and how harmful her mother’s behaviour was to her as a child and realise it is not normal or healthy behaviour for mothers to scream and throw things. Such a woman will not repeat the mistake her mother made in that regard; however, if she never reflects on her childhood and what happened to her, she, too, will probably end up becoming a mother who screams and throws things, passing on this dysfunction to her own children.
An explanation for why children are so susceptible to the influences of their parents’ behaviour is that from an evolutionary point of view, those parents’ succeeded in reproduction. Therefore, copying whatever they did would be a good strategy to ensure that they also succeed in reproducing. If your parents were both hard working, then being a hard worker is a trait you will probably learn from them. If your parents were alcoholics, then you are at high risk of also becoming an alcoholic. If your mother had a teen pregnancy, then you are more likely than average to have one, too. The only defence against a repeat of one’s parents’ mistakes is through self-knowledge.
If everyone you grew up with was an alcoholic, then the only chance of you stopping yourself from being an alcoholic is if you decide, upon reflection, that you do not believe it will be beneficial for you to continue this tradition. If you do not think about this, you will do as others do and mindlessly drink yourself stupid. Otherwise, in the absence of self-awareness, we merely copy what other people around us do without thinking very much about it. In a country of alcoholics, alcoholism is not a vice, it is a custom.
By reflecting on one’s childhood, one gets in touch with one’s feelings about how they were raised. Children who were neglected, spanked, or treated unfairly by their parents may not remember their feelings about these incidents as adults. This is why, as adults, people often repeat the same mistakes their parents made. This is the unsettling feeling some people have of waking up one day and realising that they’ve turned into their parents. You clearly cannot change the past, but you can go back into your childhood memories. You can remember what it was like to be ignored by your parents because they thought their job was more important than helping you with your schoolwork, for example. After reflecting on this, you can conclude this was a bad decision that your parents made regarding you, and you can give your own children the attention and help you missed out on. You can also appreciate that being ignored by your parents lead you down a path of thinking your own needs aren’t important, which caused you to develop low self-esteem. Once you realise things like this were wrong and harmful you to yourself, you can start the healing process.
Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. When you neglect to examine your own life- your past, your experiences, your feelings, your motivations- you are not really in the driver’s seat of your life. Life is simply “happening” to you. You will not understand why you feel the way you do. You will not understand where your problems come from or have a road map for how to resolve them. You might even come to believe that your brain is “broken” or that there is nothing you can do to improve your life. You can only take control of your life and problems when you make self-knowledge a priority and, for most people, this necessarily includes a re-examination of childhood and the behavioural patterns you learned back then.