Sam is sixteen years old and his mother just called this morning. She sounded like she was hurting and unable to cope. Just last night, she had to call the police once again on her son who has been extremely verbally abusive to her, barricading her for long periods of time in her room. He also vandalizes the home and hasn’t been to school in two years. She told me that Sam’s father, who had also been verbally abusive to her, no longer lives in the home and shows no interest in Sam. Furthermore, Sam was violently attacked by a gang of teens a few years ago.
Sheryl is twenty-three years old. Her father left home about six or seven years ago and her mother left to go back to her native country four years ago, leaving Sheryl, at the age of nineteen, to look after her two brothers and sister. Sheryl has not coped very well with her very troubling brothers and sister. Nevertheless, this young caregiver feels very responsible for her siblings and worries about the trouble they get into and their lack of education. Both brothers are currently in trouble with the law and her sister is a teen mother. Sheryl is overwhelmed with anxiety and depression.
Courtney, sixteen years old, has lived with her father since the age of three. At that time, her mother disappeared and is no longer involved in their lives. Courtney suffers from serious anxiety and has not been to school in five years. Her father, caring very much for his daughter, feels unable to cope with her mental health problems.
What do these three clients have in common? I believe the most obvious commonalities include loss and personal struggles resulting in pain and behavioural difficulties. However, on a deeper level, there’s so much more involved. Struggling youth means struggling families. No one lives in total isolation and those around us, those who love us, those who are connected in any way, struggle when we struggle. Professionally we are quite aware that our history affects the present and unless dealt with in therapy, will affect our futures. I would like to suggest that this is over- simplifying the obvious. Emotional pain comes from so many different directions.
Depression and anxiety are two emotional situations that I am seeing more and more over the past year or two. I have discussed this with colleagues who, likewise, have experienced this phenomenon. What’s going on in our lives and communities that can account for this? I would like to suggest that perhaps we are either seeing more depression and anxiety or perhaps, the depression and anxiety we are seeing is more intense. Maybe, it is as I have noted in the title, “you are who you’ve been”. We can try to better understand what’s going on in our communities by understanding what is meant by “You Are Who You’ve Been”?
Let’s start with the simplest understanding by using an analogy. All of our life experiences are stored in our brain. Like the most powerful computer invented, those experiences are stored in “files” in the brain and in the best of times, we can retrieve those experiences in order to learn from them and use the experiences for our current situations. However, this is when we can “retrieve” the memories on a cognizant, or awareness, level. However, if the “file” can’t be found or it is found but can’t be deciphered, how can we use the information? Even more so, how is the filed away information making its way into our daily lives and how is it affecting us, especially if we don’t know it’s there?
Before going any further, I have asked my daughter, Aliza Terris, who works part-time at Regesh as a psychotherapist and has a specialty, among other things, in brain development as it relates to mental health and development, to comment on the role of the brain in this phenomenon. Let’s start with the child and the role of the child’s brain in this. She notes that the research on the brain confirms that our brains are in fact the last organ to develop in a human being. This design invites the developing child’s environment to contribute to the shaping of the brain. The brain works in such a way that different brain cells (neurons) will wire together based on firing together. Practically, that means that the environment of a young child will actually shape the circuitry of the brain. Most important for future implications, the brain learns what to expect, based on its assessment of the small components of the environment. When the child’s developing brain, which needs acceptance and unconditional love and value from his or her caregivers receives that, the child is at ease and free to develop his or her natural skills and talents, with energy available to play, grow and mature according to potential. If, on the other hand the environment the child is developing in is considered by the unconscious assessment of the brain to be dangerous and not meeting his or her emotional needs, the human psyche is wired to seek approval and learn to adapt to survive the environment when it is less than ideal. We are who we have been because without self-reflection and self-awareness as we become capable of it, then naturally the defensive adaptations we made to survive in our youth ‘stick’ with us and become character traits which feel like they are us. At that point, on a subconscious level we continue to assess and perceive (the brain is an assessment and anticipation machine) through our old, often warped ‘lenses’. The good news is that we have been given a mind which can, often with help, get us out of the subconscious and back into our highest human ability of consciousness, making a choice of who to be moment to moment.
Once we understand the child’s brain development, we can go back to understanding the “filing system” I discussed above. The child’s brain continues to function the way it developed. Now we have to realize something my readers have heard from me before. That is, the way we think becomes the way we feel which, in turn, becomes the way we act. If our life experiences are understood to be (thinking) negative, our feelings about the related experiences become negative. In fact, think of our automatic understanding as a default button. That is, whether you are 15 years old, 30 years old, 60 years old or whatever, your automatic default thought process sets the tone for your sequence of thinking, feeling, doing. As we understand this sequence and the effect it has on our feelings (moods), we must gain the personal control to put that default thinking into a manual mode and become more responsive with new thinking rather than reactive to our default mode.
Therefore, the reason we are who we have been is because we tend to react to our past experiences the same way we have done so throughout our lives. Only when we can become more self-reflective and understanding, can we take control of our thought (patterns of understanding) to change the default reaction to a purposeful, self-planned way of dealing with situations. This truly becomes what we all strive for now, as self-control of our feelings and thus, actions. As Aliza describes it, “this is the Divine quality of a human being, when we cease to live blindly and ‘instinctively’ and instead choose to create each moment anew, based on an assessment not made on past unconscious choices, but based rather on a higher, intellectual and perhaps even spiritual informed place within us.”
The examples at the beginning of the article of Sam, Sheryl and Courtney are all examples of how these clients have been negatively influenced by life experiences that were never understood in a way to take personal control over them. Let us all work on controlling our own feelings and actions. As the saying goes, “knowledge is power” and the more we understand ourselves, the more power we have over our thoughts, feelings and actions. In so doing, we can become proud of the way we are today because we understand our past experiences. We can use them to make us better and not a puppet of our past negative experiences.
Ed Schild is the Executive Director of Regesh Family and Child Services in Toronto, Ontario Canada. He is also a family therapist and certified specialist in Anger Management and conducts many therapeutic workshops in various topics. Regesh runs many programs helping children, teens and families dealing with personal and family issues in their lives. To arrange a speaking engagement or consultation, contact Mr. Schild at Regesh Family and Child Services. He can be reached at 416-495-8832 extension 222 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit www.regesh.com.