CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Sunday, November 28, 2010

PTSD: Post-Thanksgiving stress disorder?

Your critical mother was in rare form, simultaneously carving up the turkey and slicing through your self-confidence like so much pumpkin pie. ("I'm just saying how much nicer you would look if you wore a little makeup and lost a few pounds, dear.") By the end of the meal, you had regressed from being a seemingly confident adult to an insecure, acne prone teenager.

All things considered, the turkey got off easy.

There's nothing like the holiday season to re-creating old family dramas. Yet many people are surprised that the scars from childhood remain so raw. What can be most unnerving is the realization that you, too, do your part in the drama, arriving late to (unconsciously) annoy mother, or arguing back in some misguided attempt to finally convince her of your worth, or to prove how she has wronged you for decades. Hasn't enough time gone by to forget about all that?

But time alone will not put the past behind you. Without realizing it, you may be holding onto your pain -- and often re-create it in the present -- in a misguided attempt to protect yourself from further trauma.

When your earliest needs and unique individuality are met with hostility or neglect, you are too young to know how to process this experience. Overwhelmed, a part of you shuts down in self protection. Unable to make sense of what has happened, you go through life on guard for the trauma to happen again. You continue to see yourself as not quite good enough, sure to be rejected. Unconsciously, you choose people who reject you and remind you of the past precisely because they are so familiar, and thereby oddly comforting in their predictability.

When a critical boss reminds you of mother, or your defiant daughter stirs up your fear of not being good enough, you may feel thrown back to being a helpless child. It happens so reflexively, so unconsciously, you may not even realize it. And you certainly may not be able to make the connection to the past that would help make sense of your strong reaction.

Instead, you become your critical mother by yelling at your defiant daughter, which only causes her to ignore you -- making you to feel more rejected. At work, you procrastinate and miss a deadline, unwittingly contributing to your boss' ire. You berate yourself for your imperfections, thus becoming both critical mother and incompetent child within yourself.

The only way to move on from the past is to better understand how it continues to affect the present. Psychoanalysis encourages you to re-examine your childhood not to get stuck in it (as many people fear) but to get unstuck from it. Only then can you mourn what you didn't get, and find recognition and fulfillment in the present.

Mother may always be critical. By exorcising her voice from within you -- or, more realistically, by incorporating it with other, more gentle voices -- you are less likely to be activated by her in the present.

Which just might make the holidays a little more bearable.