On many occasions I am reminded how powerful and freeing it is when a client shares a nugget of insight that they’ve held secret for many years and now have become ready to share their truth.
Recently, I sat with a client and the room felt heavy. He appeared to be carrying the weight of something yet to be determined. Over a series of sessions our conversations had been bouncing around several subjects that were loosely tied together such as why he shuts down when his wife gets angry, managing finances, fixing his car, struggling to find a hobby, distraught with his career, etc. At times the conversations felt haphazard. Then, during a recent session a long pause occurred and soon followed a simple yet powerful statement “there’s a lot of stuff dad never taught me.”
That simple statement “there’s a lot of stuff dad never taught me” unlocked something inside of him that became an extremely freeing experience. The weight that he had been carrying began to lessen as we discussed further what he meant by that. Upon further discussion a prominent theme surfaced – “I don’t feel prepared.” While my client was not casting blame on his father he was finding ways to tie together threads that helped him understand his current challenges.
In his experience his father took the approach “protect me” vs. “prepare me.” My client knew his dad “loved him” but he realized it came from a place of protection. He shared how talented his father was fixing things around the house. Instead of “teaching him” how to do that, my client shared how his father would declare “I don’t want you to get hurt.” On other occasions he recalled that he would ask his father “show me” and his dad would insist on doing it himself.
He also expressed that there was not a lot of conversation that took place between his father and his mother. In his opinion, they always seemed to be in separate places. Again, he expressed that he felt love from his parents while in hindsight he was not sure if there was a lot of love between the two of them.
While my client’s life experiences are not directly caused by his parents, and more specifically by his father. There is a connection in terms of “prepare me” vs. “protect me.”
Our brains are super computers and the more we feed it and enable it to interact with the world around us the more likely we are to develop an understanding of how to operate and function in that world. Our interactions enable us to connect experiences and build concepts that we store for future interactions. Think of these “concepts” as our own personal “how to” manual. While on the other hand, if we limit interaction with world around us then development will be limited and our concepts, or “how to" manual, will be limited.
Lisa Feldman Barrett discusses in her book, How Emotions Are Made, the subject of emotional concepts. She theorizes that we need emotion concepts in order to experience or perceive the associated experience. For example, without the concept of “fear” you cannot experience fear. Barrett also shares that our emotional concepts enable us to make meaning, prescribe action, and allow us to regulate ourselves.
What we uncovered together was that my client had a desire to feel prepared and confident in navigating the day-to-day challenges of life without beating himself up - “I feel like a failure.” For example, when it came to unhealthy interaction with his wife he began to determine that he shuts down because he wants to protect his marriage and by shutting down he doesn’t contribute to the problem. His own “concept” or “how to” manual was limited when it came to reconciling arguments with his wife. However, he was able to tie together that he never witnessed his parents fight or resolve a disagreement therefore leaving him unclear how to resolve conflict with his wife. As he put it “my dad was a man of few words.”
For my client, while it was freeing to share “there’s stuff dad never taught me” what was even more liberating was that he had a better understanding that he wasn’t a failure. His personal “how to" manual was limited. He understood that his parents took a protective approach. Now, he could start his journey to fill the gaps by building new concepts and becoming more prepared and confident.