I Had a Perfect Childhood, Why am I Depressed?
It used to be that when someone landed in a therapy office, the therapist and client could collaborate to bring the string back into some area in their childhood that needed repair. Maybe the parents invalidated the child’s feelings over and again, or there was incident of abuse, or maybe neglect. Maybe there were problems on the playground where the child felt like he or she didn’t belong reinforcing a cycle of shame.
But as Lori Gottlieb points on in The Atlantic, I have also found a number of 20 and 30 somethings who land in my office saying they had wonderful, loving parents, with no history of depression and so they don’t understand why they are feeling lost and depressed. Now, of course, having no history of depression in the family is always questionable and when someone comes in claiming they had the “perfect” childhood that often leaves me skeptical and wanting to inquire a bit deeper. Often times I find this wasn't the case, but sometimes it was.
Lori makes the case that as parents, we can over-attune to the point of coddling the kids too much leaving them disappointed by the real world that is not constantly cheering them on and picking them up when they fall. Herein lies the imperfection. There is certainly something to be said about this and something we can learn about it as parents.
However, at times it’s the case of the children idealizing the parents as “perfect” leads to a self-reinforcing loop is created where the adult child is constantly comparing themselves to an idealized human being and feeds a cycle of deficiency. The thought is, “My parents did everything for me, I’ll never be a complete whole, achieving, human being like my parents, I’m failing them, what’s wrong with me.”
The truth is, as we dig a bit deeper, maybe the parents weren’t as perfect as Lori says. Maybe they coddled and cheered on this adult child a little too far, enabling them to a point where they don’t have the resources to be self-reliant. The fact is, it’s short sighted to only look at the child’s relationship with the parents as the sole determining factor in the adult child’s mental health. However, the parent-child relationship is often an integral factor. The intentions were good, the parents are good-enough, but there are always consequences to actions.
Understanding why we might feel so lost is an important piece of restoring a sense of self-acceptance. The second part of it is learning how to love ourselves again or maybe for the first time. Here is where we need to learn how to have a new relationship with the shame connected to the imprisoning belief “I’m not good enough” that lives within.
That feeling is the sad, lonely feeling inside that is exactly what needs to be re-parented. The feeling needs the person to learn how to hold their own pain with a sense of warmth and love and not rely on their parents to give this to them now.
I often tell my clients to sense this feeling within and imagine it as a younger part of themselves. Now imagine their adult self cradling this feeling, while the adult self feels cradled at the same time. This is a practice, not meant to “achieve” a particular result, but more to begin building the neural pathways in the brain toward greater self-acceptance, self-love and self-reliance.
If you’ve had this experience, give this a shot, try this out for a few minutes at a time and begin to see the new relationship emerge with yourself.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Thought provoking article - Jeremy Fink, LCSW - Jun 16th 2011
I like how you framed this, and I agree: the reflecting of a perfectionistic or "immaculate" childhood may result in an inability to provide this for one's self during adulthood. Great article Elisha!