Why do I find it so hard to commit to a relationship?
Why do I blurt out comments that I really should keep to myself?
Why do I always take the easy route?
Why am I so uncomfortable in large groups of people?
Have you ever been baffled by your own behavior? “Why am I like this?” is a question that most people ask themselves at some point or another. We all have issues. We all have patterns, feelings, struggles or conflicts that get in our way in life, holding us back or preventing us from being happier or more successful. Usually, these struggles come from an unknown place within us. We can end up observing our own behavior and wondering, “Why?” Interestingly, the huge majority of people who ask this question never think to look in the very place most likely to hold the answer: their childhoods.
In my work as a psychologist, I find that I can often help my patients find answers to these and other baffling questions about the struggles, issues, and behaviors they encounter as adults. I can do this because I know something they don’t. I know that a very large percentage of who we become as adults depends directly upon what we experienced as children. I have noticed that even folks who essentially know this don’t fully realize the enormity of it.
In 1950, psychiatrist John Bowlby proposed the then-radical idea that our relationships with our parents throughout infancy and childhood have a direct and powerful effect upon our adult personalities. He called it “Attachment Theory.” Since that day, psychology researchers have spent innumerable hours and dollars studying the responses and reactions of infants to their mothers. They have found, over and over again, that the exact same reactions and behaviors observed between infant and parent can be seen in the infant decades later, in adulthood.
Despite the fact that Attachment Theory has been well proven, and that mental health professionals accept it as a ubiquitous fact, the general public remains remarkably unaware of its helpfulness, and of the many answers it can offer.
I think that we are all a little afraid to truly grasp the implications of Attachment Theory. As adults, we are uncomfortable with the notion that our parents are such a huge part of who we are today. We are more comfortable believing that we are a product of our own choices, made under our own power. Beyond that, for those of us who are parents, it’s quite terrifying to realize the incredible amount of influence that we have over our children’s future personalities and lives.
In my psychology practice I see, over and over again, fine people who are confused by their own issues and conflicts. Instead of looking backward for the answer, they face forward and trudge on, hoping the problem will go away on its own. When it doesn’t, they feel that they must be stupid or flawed. They blame themselves.
The path to an actual solution is quite different. It involves seeing the true roots of the problem in your childhood, and recognizing that you did not bring this problem upon yourself. You didn’t choose this. It’s not your fault. There are answers, and solutions. Once you have understanding and the self-blame lifts, you are freed up to make conscious choices to change your behavior.
Going back to childhood for answers can be extra difficult for those whose childhoods were painful. If you were mistreated as a child; if you were abused or neglected in any way, it can be very, very hard to look back. It is an unfortunate reality, though, that looking back is often the only way to move forward.
Next time you recognize an issue or pattern that is getting in your way in life, I hope that instead of marching forward blindly, you will stop, turn around, and look backward instead. For that is where your answers lie.