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How to Break Free from the Past

When the past calls, let it go to voicemail, believe me, it has nothing to say.-unknown

Did you come from a dysfunctional family?

Do you feel you have been damaged by your child hood experiences?

Do you want to break free from the past?

Who am I?

‘I had a rotten childhood’ said Len.

‘There must have been something wrong with my father. Out of all of the family, I seemed to be his target for physical and verbal abuse. I was always the scapegoat for his bad temper. Nothing I did was right and I came to dread being around him.’

‘Can you give me an example, Len?’ I asked.

‘What, just one?’ queried Len. ‘There were so many, I’d have trouble just thinking of just one example.

But one thing that certainly stands out in my mind was the intense fear I had when I came home from school. As I came in the door I would know, from the way he looked at me, whether I was in trouble. He had intense cold blue eyes and, one look from him would fill me with dread.

The beatings were hard to bear but the psychological abuse has been much more long-lasting. Bruises heal. The damage he did to my mental health never has.’

‘What do you think the long-term effects have been?’ I asked.

‘Back then, I stayed out of the house as much as I could and left home as soon as I could.

But it wasn’t long before I was drinking heavily and later, taking drugs. They seemed to help for a while. They calmed some of the anxiety and helped me get through some social situations but, underneath it all, I couldn’t let go of the idea that I was worthless. The drinking has lost me jobs over the years and my low self-esteem has lost me relationships. I push people away.

Who am I? How can I break free from the past? I’m on my own now. I’ve got no job, no partner and I have real problems controlling my anger, but a part of me knows there must be another way. That’s why I’m here. I’ve got to make some changes.’

A traumatic childhood

It was clear Len had been traumatised by his childhood, his dysfunctional family and the relationship with his father in particular.

As a small boy he would have been trying to create a picture of his place in the world, looking for clues from his environment about who he was and whether he was worthy. Clearly his emotional needs had not been met from his environment at that important time. The result would have been a highly anxious, hyper vigilant child, missing key ingredients for well-being, that is, a sense of both love and security.

It seemed to me that Len and I would need to embark on some de-trauma work to break free from the past, interrupting old patterns and dismantling the coping mechanisms which had become habitual down the years.

Carl Rogers, the father of modern counselling, said ‘We do not come into this world estranged from ourselves. That is something which happens along the way.’

At the point we enter this world, we are, as he would say ‘a model of congruence’, whole and complete but, the ‘stuff’ that happens to us on our journey through life, the labels, bad experiences and negative feedback can give us a feeling that we are unacceptable to the world.

We then create ‘a false self’, the varnish we paint over what we perceive as the unacceptable truth about our self, and the place where we use coping and defence mechanisms such self isolation, anger and addictions, to survive.

Resolving the trauma of the beatings would be the start of our work together. Rebuilding Len’s self esteem would take a longer.

A hot air balloon

If we think of our life like a hot air balloon, we fill and expand as a child until we are ready to ‘cut free’ from the ‘anchors and tie ropes’ of our primary care givers.

But, we cannot ‘gain height’ if we are weighed down by sand bags. We need to cut them free. The more sandbags we cut free, the more baggage we let go of, the higher we can fly and the more we can break free of the past.

‘The trouble is, Len,’ I said, ‘having the ability to have children does not automatically create a good parent, just like owning a grand piano does not turn someone into a concert pianist.

But coming from a dysfunctional family does not mean you are dysfunctional. It feels like it’s time to peel back the layers and connect with the real you again.’

The £20 note

I told Len the story of the £20 note:

In a college psychology class, the tutor took a clean and crisp £20 note from his pocket and held it up.

‘Who would like this £20 note?’ he asked. All hands in the class shot up.

The tutor took a pair of scissors and cut the £20 note in two.

‘Who would like it now?’ he asked. Still all the hands went up.

Then the tutor screwed up the two pieces, threw them to the floor and trampled all over them.

He picked up the pieces, now dirty and crumpled. He unravelled them and held them up to the class again.

‘Who would like this £20 note now?’ he asked.

Still all hands went up.

‘You see,’ explained the tutor ‘the value of the £20 note is not diminished. It is still worth £20 whether it’s clean and new, shiny and fresh-printed or whether it is a bit damaged and battered.’

Who would you like to be?

We pick up scars along the way. Some are physical and some emotional, but these scars do not make us less worthy.

Many people come into therapy asking the question;

‘Who am I?’

To which my general response is;

‘Who would you like to be?’…and that is the focus for the work.

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.