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How our childhood needs can persist into adulthood

Someone may come across as an intelligent, accomplished, confident person and yet in their close relationships they feel consistently let down.

Whoever they find themselves with there is a strong probability the other person will disappoint them.

Often when I talk with clients about their childhoods they may describe an environment in which their material needs were met but where one or both  parents were a little distant, or absent, or critical.

“It’s ok,” they may say, “my parents did their best”.

And it may be true that their parents did their best and we should not underestimate providing food, shelter, birthday presents, holidays and all the other things many parents give their children.

But, as Austrian-born psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut pointed out, children need more than to be fed, clothed and receive material comfort from their parents. 

One of the fundamental needs of all children, believed Kohut, was for one or both parents to ‘mirror’ the child. By this he meant to take delight in the child and to communicate that he or she is wonderful and special. 

Of course, no parent can provide this mirroring all the time and, in fact, it’s good for the child’s development that there are times when it does not happen, as the child can then draw on the experience of parental mirroring to soothe themselves. 

But when there is not sufficient mirroring – perhaps because a parent is depressed, insecure or was not sufficiently cherished by their own parents – the child’s development is affected. 

He or she may then feel a gnawing lack of self-worth and seek to compensate in a variety of ways. These may include by over achieving and needing to be ‘special’, in other words we continue to try and get others to provide for us what our parents failed to.

One of the interesting aspects of this view is the suggestion that even as adults we continue to try and get these childhood needs met, even though we may not be aware that that is what we are doing.

Many of us believe that, as adults, we need to ‘put away childish things’, as the bible says. But actually, it is about recognising the continued influence of our childhood’s unmet needs.

The more we can make these unmet needs conscious, the more chance we have of not being dominated by them. This is, of course, a process that takes time and one that may include grieving over what we didn’t receive. Therapy is one place where we can be supported in this grief process.

The grieving process allows us, in time, to make peace with ourselves and, hopefully, our parents or caregivers. By allowing ourselves to grieve we can also, gradually, develop the capacity to give ourselves the love and empathy that can help us let go of the need to try and manipulate others into meeting our needs.

Image creative commons licence at pixabay.com, https://tinyurl.com/8ay6mjsc

More information at http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

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Is the value of self-esteem exaggerated?

We often talk about self-esteem as an essential part of leading a fulfilling life – but what exactly do we mean by self-esteem and is it as important as many of us have been told?

A new book by American author Jesse Singal* describes how a lot of the research findings on self-esteem from the 1990s were exaggerated and he questions the value of promoting self-esteem.

He describes how in the late 1980s and 1990s John Vasconcellos, a California politician, became convinced that poor self-esteem was the reason for all kinds of negative outcomes, ranging from addiction to crime. He claimed that raising self-esteem would improve outcomes across society. 

He set up research studies which apparently confirmed this belief and set in motion a state-wide campaign to raise children’s self-esteem, which then spread to other parts of the USA and globally. One of the advantages of this idea was that it seemed to offer a relatively cheap way to fix major problems in society.

The only problem was that a lot of the research was over sold, it subsequently emerged, and did not prove what Vasconcellos claimed. 

So, does this mean that we should forget the idea of self-esteem?

I don’t think so, but I do think this issue raised the question of what exactly we mean by “self-esteem”. I think the problem is that there is a difference between healthy self-esteem and narcissism but sometimes the two can be confused.

Narcissism

When people were talking about self-esteem in the Vasconcellos research they were asking individuals to rate themselves on their abilities and we know that people who rate themselves highly may turn out to be rather narcissistic. 

I’d say that in those cases we’re not talking about genuine self-esteem but rather a defence mechanism against deeper feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes, if someone feels inferior they will put on a show of confidence or arrogance. This can become so automatic that they no longer are pretending but actually believe themselves to be superior.

Psychologist Kristin Neff, in her book Self Compassion, describes the pressure many of us feel under to be ‘special’ or to over achieve and how this can give rise to a tendency to over value our abilities. 

She argues that self compassion, in which we accept ourselves as flawed but essentially worthwhile individuals, is a better way of relating to ourselves than self-esteem (at least in the sense of telling ourselves we are good at something even if we’re not).

Self-compassion

In self-compassion we try to not judge ourselves as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but to treat ourselves with kindness, even when we mess up.

Neff says: “Unlike self-esteem the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special or above average.”

I think that what Neff calls self-compassion could also be described as healthy self-esteem. By this I mean someone who accepts themselves on a basic level as being an okay person, not necessarily better than others but also not worse. This would be someone who makes mistakes, who can sometimes be unkind, but who can also forgive themselves and try to do better.

I believe this kind of ‘healthy’ self-esteem is an indicator of ‘success’ in life, whatever we mean by that. It could mean having meaningful relationships, developing resilience when things aren’t going well and being able to appreciate the good things in life.Singal, Jesse (2021), The Quick Fix, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.

*Singal, Jesse (2021), The Quick Fix, FSG, New York

** Neff, Kristin (2011), Self Compassion, Hodder & Stoughton, London

Image  creative commons licence by Kiran Foster, https://tinyurl.com/yp9vxdk9

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Can therapy on its own deal with addiction?

I sometimes work with clients who have addictions, such as alcohol or pornography. A question I’ve had to ask myself is whether one-to-one therapy alone is sufficient in dealing with addiction.

While I think psychotherapy is extremely useful in helping clients learn about the underlying causes of their addiction, I believe that usually the individual needs extra help in coping with the day-to-day challenges of addiction.

An obvious source of such support is a 12-step group such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Sex Addicts Anonymous. These are called 12-step groups because their model has 12 steps that that individual is encouraged to complete as part of the recovery process.

I know that some therapists discourage their clients from 12-step groups, perhaps because they disapprove of the spiritual aspect or see it as a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The advantage of these groups is that there are many of them dotted around the country, especially AA, and they are free or only ask for a small financial contribution.

Of course, not everyone takes to the 12-step model and some people struggle with the spiritual aspect. There are other support groups for addiction that do not adopt the 12-step approach, but these may sometimes be harder to access.

Either way, the advantage of being in a group is that the individual learns that they are not alone, that others are facing the same challenges. The individual can also find inspiration from hearing others’ stories and experiences. 

Social circle

One of the main challenges in many addictions is the addict’s social circle – he or she often finds themselves socialising with others who have the same addiction. A benefit of a 12-step group is that it offers a new community of like-minded people and therefore reduces loneliness and isolation, which in itself can be a trigger for addiction.

I don’t see any competition between individual therapy and 12-step groups –  I think they can complement each other. The aims are the same – to help the client stop a damaging addiction. 

I like the emphasis in 12-step groups on taking responsibility for one’s actions and accepting that one is powerless in the face of the addiction. Accepting the power of the addiction over one’s life is a key part of making positive changes.

Where I think therapy can help in particular is the individual relationoship the client makes with the therapist and the changes that can emerge over time through that relationship. Meeting with the therapist every week can help the client, in particlar, work through some of the early childhood experiences that may have contributed to the addiction.

One of the things some people struggle with in 12-step groups is reference to a higher power. I understand that for some this is difficult but I think it can be understood not in a conventional religious way but rather as a recognition that there is a greater meaning to our lives, one that is beyond our ego.

Another teaching of 12-step groups, that one is powerless in the face of the addiction, represents the paradox that in addmitting this powerlessness a person can actually be taking an essential, first step towards freeing oneself.

Overall, therefore, I believe that 12-step groups offer a lot for people with addiction and that their model can complement individual counselling or psychotherapy.

Image Creative Commons license courtesy of pixabay.com, https://tinyurl.com/376zvcfk

More information at http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk

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The power of the victim

Have you ever spent time with someone who was so sensitive to feeling hurt that everyone fussed around them to make sure they were feeling okay? 

This person may have expected you to read their mind about what they wanted and then got annoyed when you failed to. They then make it your fault – ‘But you should know that that upsets me!’ Or ‘How could you have done that when you know how it makes me feel?’

You may then feel guilty at how selfish or thoughtless you’ve been and try and make it right.

That’s the power of the victim. 

I’m using the word ‘victim’ here in a particular sense, to describe the way that someone can use that role to gain power in their relationships, often unconsciously. Of course, there are many victims in the world who have experienced abusive or damaging treatment and who have legitimate grievances.

But sometimes a genuine experience of victimhood can develop into a way of getting our power needs met in an indirect and sometimes manipulative way.

This may be particularly true for people who find it hard to be assertive and ask for what they need, but rather communicate their ‘hurt feelings’ and try to get other people to rescue them and take responsibility for their lives.

This can be seen with the Drama Triangle, a psychological model that shows how we can alternate between the roles of persecutor, rescuer and victim in our relationships. We may tend to be drawn to one role but can sometimes occupy a different role in the triangle. 

In many couples there will be someone who tends to be the ‘rescuer’, who takes a lot of responsibility for the other person, and someone who tends to be the ‘victim’, who struggles in their life.

When couples become too rigid in these roles then problems develop and each can expeirence the other as the ‘persecutor’. In this case both partners are feeling like the victim and that’s often where, in a sense, we feel most comfortable. It’s much better to regard ourselves as a victim and the other person as the persecutor. 

But it’s important that we recognise our tendency to gravitate towards being the victim. It’s only when we become aware that that’s what we are doing that we have a chance to change things and take appropriate responsibility by asking for what we want rather than using indirect and manipulative methods to get it.

In therapy I see part of my role as helping people see when they have been mistreated or abused, perhaps as children, and how that may have influenced the way they see the world and relate to others.

So, it’s important to validate when people have been victims. There may be legitimate anger towards those who mistreated them, and deep grief surrounding the experience. Giving those feelings a place in the therapy is important.

But sometimes we can become stuck in that victim place and that can keep limit our options as well as negatively affecting our relationships.

Image Creative Commons license, courtesy of https://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/wooden-tile/v/victim.html

For more information about my work visit http://www.patrickmccurrycounselling.co.uk