Reacting on Autopilot: When Good Intentions Fall Short
Though in some ways Julius appeared to have insight, his understanding was intellectual and compartmentalized. Even though he was generally aware of the unmistakable and dispiriting similarity between what was happening now and what happened to him as a child, Julius’s story had holes in it and lacked emotional depth.
Julius superficially explored his past in therapy sessions, but was curiously unable to remember or imagine how he might have felt as a boy, and often instinctively derailed these discussions by focusing on his parents’ “good intentions” and feeling sad for them. With limited capacity to bear feeling, Julius remained split — avoiding getting close to the deep shame and loneliness he felt as a boy. If Julius were to own the emotional truth of his experience as a boy, he would be implicating his parents, challenging his family’s construct of reality which was adaptive to incorporate when he was growing up.
But as long as Julius was unable to hold in his mind his authentic feeling experience as a boy, this compartmentalized aspect of himself sought expression — and was resurrected through his son. Julius’s episodes with Tyler only began to diminish when he became more frightened of the harmful effect of his behavior on his son than of relinquishing the protective shield he held for his parents and being “disloyal” to them. Julius began to recognize that protecting his dad from accountability unwittingly fed the abusive side of himself which was modeled after his dad. This realization helped him let go of this defense, opening the door to find and know the split-off part of himself — the frightened boy frozen in time, who had come to be represented by Tyler.
The goal of therapy was not for Julius to be mad at, implicate, or hurt his parents, but rather to reclaim the truth of his own emotional experience and understand what really happened to him. This process involved holding in his consciousness an awareness of this part of himself from an open, curious, and compassionate frame of mind. Julius was able to do this by thinking of the boy inside him as his own son.
Also, being conscious of how he treated himself when he was disappointed in his own behavior allowed a new template to form which would come into play in his relationship with Tyler. This new paradigm required Julius to bear the truth and maintain accountability for his feelings and actions, without being punitive, providing a model for how to be with Tyler. Julius also utilized behavioral strategies to manage his vulnerabilities with Tyler. These included: learning to recognize the beginning signs of anger and cooling off, backing off, or delegating responsibility at these times. In addition he resolved to mistrust his conviction and judgment as a matter of course when angry – learning to go against the instincts he developed growing up.
Traumatic events alone are not what is most damaging to children — it is the concurrence of frightening and confusing events, along with no one to comfort or provide a context which would allow the child to make sense of and integrate what happened (Seigel & Hartzell, 2003). Julius’s painful experiences growing up were never articulated or validated. His feelings were ignored, denied, or made out to be something else by his parents. Julius was literally drawn to looking in the mirror when distraught as a child — absorbed and comforted by physical evidence of his sadness, as if to make up for the lack of reflection being provided amidst such chaos — in an attempt to know and connect to what he was feeling.
Children develop the capacity to recognize and manage their feelings by internalizing their parents’ capacities to know and regulate their own internal state, and from the impact of these capacities on how parents react to their children. When emotions are articulated, validated and placed into a perspective where they are understood, rather than just absorbed and left in their original primitive form, they are able to be contained. Experiences which are processed explicitly become part of our conscious experience rather than in an orbit of their own, ready to emerge and take control of us.
Research has shown that regardless of what happened in the past, we can heal and grow and be good parents. Findings in neurobiology further suggest that whether we heal or continue to pass on our pain is determined by our capacity to know and integrate the truth of our experience into a cohesive story — emotionally and interpersonally, past and present (Seigel & Hartzell, 2003).
Seigel, D.J. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out. New York, N.Y.: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
Margolies, L. (2013). Reacting on Autopilot: When Good Intentions Fall Short. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 7, 2016, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/reacting-on-autopilot-when-good-intentions-fall-short/