One of the cornerstones of my job is to empathically explore with my clients why they continue to repeat behaviors even after they identify the behaviors as counterproductive, problematic, and/or harmful. “I don’t know why I am like this.” “Why can’t I get past this?!” “Am I really this stupid?” I’ve heard phrases like these from many a frustrated or even panicked client. Perhaps those phrases even remind you of some behavior of your own that you just seem to keep coming back to, even though you know it’s not your best self. These patterns, while incredibly frustrating and upsetting at times, once served a crucial purpose: they enabled your survival.
Across development, and especially during childhood, we are completely bound to the environments that we exist within. As such, we develop tools to best survive within those environmental systems. As time goes on, we continue to use the tools that provide us with the best outcomes.
In an ideal world, these tools are developed in-tandem with “good enough” caregivers and other protective environmental systems, providing a child with secure empathic interpersonal and environmental supports, healthy age-appropriate independent exploration, and effective strategies for problem-solving and navigating increasing levels of frustration.
We do not live in an ideal world.
For most if not all people, our developmental circumstances failed to provide us with the best materials for building the most effective and flexible tools for navigating life’s many challenges. Almost everyone I know, myself included, has experienced life circumstances that were not the best for their overall development. As children, we learn to adapt to our environment. Our behavior patterns as adults exist because they once provided us with a sense of security based on the emotional, social, and environmental circumstances we were raised in. If we perceived those environmental circumstances as emotionally unresponsive, unstable, or hostile, our toolbox is reflective of that perception. Behavior patterns and defenses that fail to help us in and across present-day contexts are in large part due to the fact that, for whatever reason, historical circumstances limited our ability for developing tools with greater emotional, social, and environmental versatility.
- A child whose social, emotional and/or physical needs are consistently ignored or overlooked will learn that their needs are not going to be met. Over time, a child within an emotionally unresponsive environment may learn to deaden their emotional experiences to protect themselves from being consistently let down, and may prioritize abilities that cater to their independence in order to survive their environment. This child may develop having internalized that others cannot be relied upon, prioritizing the preservation of their independence, sacrificing opportunities for nurturing interpersonal attachments. As an adult, this person may find themselves unable to maintain close relationships because they deeply fear being let down or abandoned. After being told by their supervisor at their job that they lack the interpersonal skills required to be promoted, the person may ask themselves, “what am I doing wrong?”
- A child with a parent who is constantly overwhelmed, a parent who responds to every situation with significant emotionality, will quickly learn that their environment is unstable. Similarly, a child with an environment that is ever changing, unpredictable, and/or dangerous will lack the time and space required to develop a stable sense of self. This child may develop into a person who experiences an overactive fight or flight response, sensing danger around every corner, consumed with fear and unable to calm themselves down during moments of anxiety, because the reality of their life up until that point demanded them to be on high alert at all times. This person, never able to effectively self-sooth, may struggle to navigate everyday life stressors, thus limiting their ability to function in both interpersonal and professional environments. They may develop explosive behaviors in an attempt to control their environment, or may experience crippling panic attacks preventing them from accomplishing necessary tasks. After a particularly bad explosive episode directed toward their romantic partner, that person may ask themselves “why am I like this?”
These examples are overly simplistic in nature, and do not reflect the nuance of the human condition, but provide us with an important awareness: The tools we forge across development are made from the materials available to us.
Exploring how the materials of our environment shape our toolbox is not an exercise in making us feel bad about our limitations, but rather, it is meant to give us space to separate ourselves from our struggles; to highlight that we did the best we could given the circumstances. The tools we built may not prove universal in their effectiveness across situations, but they were crucial in helping us survive specific stages of our lives. There is no perfect caregiver, and there is no perfect environment. Every person has skillsets that are better suited for some environmental circumstances over others. I believe we all can identify tools, once essential for our perseverance through life, that now feel unfit for new tasks at hand. So many of us are able to forgive behaviors we find disagreeable in others. And yet, somehow, that empathy is so much harder to give ourselves. In this way, perhaps the task at hand is not just changing behaviors we find intolerable, but also changing the way we view them. A necessary part of crafting new tools for our toolbox is granting permission to be kind to ourselves. We should endeavor to meet our present and past selves with empathy, love, and respect for developing, equipping, and utilizing the tools available to us, especially if the tools were molded during times in our lives when we were at our most vulnerable. This seemingly simple act of self-care gives us the space to grow, and when we allow ourselves the space to grow, we can adapt, and better yet, we can flourish.
The great news: The human brain is capable of amazing things, and we always have the capacity for leaning new tools. Therapy is a great place to examine past dynamics, present functioning, and to develop new tools for our toolboxes. There are a number of therapists who are willing to help. If you are interested in starting therapy, please feel free to contact us.