History is about meanings not events

When you take a history, especially when you enquire into someone’s childhood experiences, it’s important not to get too caught up in the events.

As therapists, we are not so much interested in what happened but in what meaning the person, the child, made of the events.

Imagine your client says, “Mum was very strict, always telling us off, and Dad was never home (and when he was, he was doing chores or working on his car)”.   This is probably significant information, but its significance comes from what the child made these facts mean about themselves.

Let’s imagine four different people who reported a family situation like this.  For person A, the frequent scoldings from mum and the inability to earn praise or attention from either parent were interpreted as “It’s my fault Mum’s always angry and Dad doesn’t want to be around me”, leading to lifelong core insecurities (a.k.a.
“shame” or “drivers”) like “I’m bad, I’m a problem”. 

For person B, their parents’ behaviour was interpreted as “I’m in the way of the important things my parents need to do”, leading to insecurities like “I’m not important, I don’t matter”.

Person C’s child brain understood Mum’s criticism as “You never do anything right” and Dad’s absence as “You’re not worth bothering with”, – Leading to insecurities like, “I’m not good enough, I’m unworthy.”

Person D’s child brain might have gone, “Mum’s so unfair, and Dad’s useless”, and left home with a belief, “I’m on my own; no one is there for me.”

Note that these four people could be siblings, growing up in the same situation but making quite different meanings of it. 

Our job in enquiring into someone’s past is to help them make sense of their behaviour in the present.  Often, this involves drawing to their attention experiences that remain unresolved, that need healing. Their experience is always subjective –often, when people look back on childhood events, they see them with adult eyes.

We need to help them connect with the child’s subjective experience.  A world where the adults are all-important and all-powerful while the child struggles to understand and is essentially powerless.  A world where they have no capacity (cognitively) to see it from anyone else’s point of view, and that means they are the cause of all that happens (I’m talking specifically about the pre-pubescent experience here).  Where if mum is sad or dad is angry, it’s my fault. 

So next time you ask about what happened in someone’s past, make sure you ask follow-up questions like:

 What was that like for you?

How did you feel about that happening?

What did that make you think or feel about yourself?

What did that mean to you, back then?

That’s where the crucial information for your therapy will come from.