The very first thing I do with clients is hear their life story. From as far back as they can remember until their current age.
We go back over the layers and the nuances, teasing apart fact from fiction and separating childhood fantasy from actual reality.
During this process, I am less interested in memories and recollections that are certain and sure, though those are welcome. More than this, I want to learn about how their family operated as a system. What were the dynamics? How did people relate to each other or did they?
By doing this, the client and I are discovering where there were gaps or holes in their upbringing that impacted how they feel about themselves as an adult, and as a result, what they believe they are worthy and deserving of.
Often, people who thought they had a good ( or at least decent) childhood are surprised and unsettled by what we uncover on the one hand, and terribly relieved on the other. Clients tell me all the time that their relationships, decisions and struggles make so much more sense in light of this new perspective.
So today I want to share with you, dear reader, one of the questions I ask my clients. This way, you can start to make sense of the pieces of your life that may feel confusing, complex, and challenging.
The question is this: Did you feel a sense of safety growing up?
Safety is a multi-faceted concept. The most obvious starting point is physical safety. Was you home free of physical violence? Did you witness violence being perpetrated against others? Were you forced to perpetrate violence toward others against your will? This also includes not having your sexual boundaries violated. Sometimes this looks like overt sexual abuse, but it can also mean not having your privacy respected, etc. I recall one client telling me that her father insisted she keep the bathroom door open while she bathed well into adolescence. He would often come in while she was showering, pull back the curtain and talk to her. Even though her body was never actually touched, it was violated just the same.
Then there is emotional safety. Did any of your caregivers call you names, berate or belittle you, or do this to others in your presence? Or did the grown ups ignore or withhold love or affection from you if you made a mistake or asked for help? Another client shared that if he did something ” wrong” ( which would vary from hour to hour) his mother would literally not speak to him for days, then randomly engage him as though nothing had ever happened. Needless to say my client was filled with anxiety and self doubt when he came to see me.
Another part of emotional safety is routine, which children need to thrive. Could you predict within reason what was going to happen next in your world? Did you know what behavior was acceptable, or did the rules seem hit or miss? Was there stability and consistency to your life or were things chaotic and frenetic? Another client revealed that her parents spilt up when she was 10. She had no idea this was happening until she woke up one morning and every trace of her father’s presence had been erased from the house. She never saw him again. Her mother refused to acknowledge that anything had happened, and would yell at her anytime my client mentioned her father. For years after, this beautiful woman clung desperately to any man who would have her and tolerated all manner of abuse in order to avoid being further abandoned. She was truly perplexed about why she kept making these same painful choices until we began our work together.
Let’s spiral further down into safety. Did you have a sense of belonging in your family, or did you feel like the odd man ( or woman) out? Was there someone you could go to with a problem or a worry, or did you keep them to yourself for fear of being judged, ridiculed, ignored, minimized or dismissed? Did you have feel accepted for exactly who you were on the inside, or was your acceptance based on how you behaved, and what you accomplished or produced? When you were sad, disappointed or hurt, was there an adult waiting with a warm hug or a soft lap for you to crawl into for comfort? Or were you told to stop crying because you were over reacting? If you got angry, was your anger welcomed as a valid emotion and allowed expression within appropriate limits? Or were you spanked, yelled at, not heard, or sent to your room until you could “act right?” How about when you had an opinion or thought that differed from your parent? Were you treated as a separate, sovereign being with a right to your own experience? Or were you guilted, blamed or shamed into changing your mind?
Of course, the question of safety is not the only one to consider when piecing together your life. But it is a big one. There are as many variations on this as there are people with stories to tell. And if you recognize your self anywhere in my words, know that your story is worth telling. You are worthy of having it heard and witnessed. And even though the story may not change, how you relate to it can.