The way we choose a partner, form relationships, and generally conduct ourselves with others as adults is undoubtedly influenced strongly by our past. Let’s say your parents had a) very high expectations of you at a young age or b) that you had a relationship where their attention to you was at times ’patchy’ (for example other major life events distracted them). It is not at all inconceivable that child a) goes on to being an ‘underachiever’ or that child b) desperately seeks attention from their friends and partners.
It’s not that significant childhood trauma needs to occur for us to become scrambled emotionally as adults. It can be much more subtle. Childhood may have been, a time when everyone was literally doing their best (including you). Phillip Larkin had a point when he wrote:
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do’
We are too shy or too forceful, too interested in sex or too avoidant of it, too careful or excessively risk-taking, we dream and effuse too much or else are too stolid and boring. Psychological imbalances make up a never-ending list. Often it is a continuum with extremes at both ends and balance in the middle, risk-taking being a good example. At one end of the continuum there is flagrant disregard for your own (and maybe others) safety and at the other the never-ending monotony and paralysing fear of anything that does not appear to have a cast-iron outcome. Of course, in general, we often want to find our way closer to the middle of the continuum.
Mum and dad for their part, nearly always don’t mean it, as Larkin suggested. They probably, by and large, want the best for their children and for them to be happy and loved. A parent scoring high for volatility, however, may influence a child to be more withdrawn and less assertive. An over-protective adult could push offspring towards anxiety when they meet any of the unavoidable situations they encounter as adults. Our imbalances are manifest in feelings we first encountered in childhood: shame, embarrassment, and fear. Our overblown sense of grandeur may have led us to think we could actually settle the problems of squabbling adults and long-after the squabbling has any relevance to our present life, we still seek, sometimes at a heavy cost, to avoid confrontation.
The whole issue of our emotional imbalances is made more complex by the fact that the original wounds, do not appear immediately clear to us. We, partly, accept that that is just the way we are, don’t like conflict or like it too much. We are volatile when we would, in the cold, calm logic of day, see it would have been better to remain calm. Contrary to this we might withdraw and not speak at all, when we know we should have. Whatever the imbalance, the cause is not always clear.
What then of the work to rectify, help balance or ameliorate these imbalances? This work lies with the psychotherapist. They need to have no agenda other than whatever is most useful to you, the client. They can help interpret the feelings you have (but only in collaboration with you) and you will be the best judge of what these feelings reflect. The work isn’t always easy, and it may take a little time to fully dig up the past and try to set it straight. Perhaps the work will involve raising awareness of the client’s best (and less pleasant) aspects of the self, where these aspects come from and, where needed, to start working to soften and, at least slightly, reform them. For my own part, I am too agreeable and too volatile, one is an easy trait to ignore, as hardly anyone else complains. The cost though, is doing things I don’t really want to, to please others, who often won’t even notice. The volatility is sometimes embarrassing and maybe issues forth from my agreeableness, this is probably a symptom of high agreeableness, i.e. a tendency to seek to appease others and then feel resentment and frustration for having done so.
Larkin, P. (1974). High windows. Faber & Faber.
Dr Trevor Simper is a practising psychotherapist.