Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Why Going Back Home Can Leave Us Feeling Lost

Experiencing the unconscious downsides of the family visit.

Do you ever notice things feeling a bit off after seeing your family? Do the voices in your head second-guessing you get a little louder? Do you notice words coming out of your mouth that don't even sound like you? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you, like so many others, have experienced the downside of the family visit. Whether inviting your parents along for your summer vacation, spending a long weekend at your relatives' or celebrating 4th of July with a family-reunion-style BBQ, you may be unaware that when you see your family you are risking exposure to much more than UVB rays.

This is not to say that the effects on one's mental health of seeing one's family are all negative or that there aren't real joys that come with reconnecting with loved ones. But being around your parents or going back to the town in which you grew up can stir up implicit memories that automatically trigger feelings we felt in our past. Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of The Mindful Brain and Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA wrote that "[A]crucial feature of implicit memory is that when we do retrieve an element of implicit memory into awareness we do not have the internal sensation that something is being accessed from a memory of the past. We just have the perceptual, emotional, somatosensory, or behavioral response without knowing that these are activations related to something we've experienced before."

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In simple terms, implicit memories are memories that exist deep in our minds and can surface without our conscious awareness. An example of an implicit memory at work is our ability to remember how to ride a bike. We don't consciously think about how to do it; this memory is simply in us. Conversely, an example of an explicit memory would be the memory of a parent teaching us to ride the bike, a concrete experience that exists in our minds. Implicit memories make it possible to experience even a seemingly smooth or pleasant visit home, while unconsciously reconnecting to feelings, thoughts, attitudes and identities we held as children.
When we experience implicit memories, we often feel like we are back in the situation we are reminded of, and we innately react as we did in that early situation.

For example, a friend of mine recently brought her boyfriend along on a visit to her parents' house. It was his first time meeting her parents, and he found them to be kind and laid back people with little to say in the way of anything negative or critical. Yet several times during the visit, he noticed my friend's voice take on an uncharacteristically high-pitched tone, as she'd defensively react to what seemed to him rather innocent comments from her parents. When he mentioned this observation on the drive home, my friend was puzzled by how much his impression and the things he recounted her saying sounded like her teenage self arguing with her parents over their strict, controlling style.

Had my friend's parents made a comment to her that was more reminiscent of the past (as many parents do), her reaction would probably have been even more intensified and would have affected her mood for much longer. In this same sense, had she not caught on to her childlike reaction, she would most likely have been more inclined to stay in her regressed state, acting defensive or rebellious in less appropriate situations.

When old feelings like these start to impact our behavior, we are exposed to ways in which we haven't completely grown up or individuated from our parents or other influential adults in our childhoods and the early identities we took on within our families. No matter how mature we feel, memories of our 10-year-old selves can cause us to act like we did when we were 10. When this happens, our parents aren't always helpful, as it is easy for them to then see us as our 10-year-old selves and react accordingly.

Our regression would not seem so significant if it was limited to our interactions with our parents, but a lack of differentiation tends to have serious effects on all areas of our lives, particularly our principal relationships. The closer we get to a person or the more we let a person mean to us, the more likely those feelings are to trigger implicit memories from our earliest relationships. When this happens, it is like we are transported to the past and re-experience negative feelings that are not appropriate in the present..

Acting on old emotions and early identities isn't a pattern only apparent in our romantic relationships. It can be observed in many areas of our personal and professional lives and has a significant impact on the choices we make as adults. When we experience an intense emotional reaction - a victimized sting from a boss, severe cynicism toward a coworker - it's helpful to evaluate our reactions and question why the intensity has surfaced. Often, when a feeling is particularly intense, it indicates a connection to more primal feelings that correlate with childhood occurrences.

The more we fail to differentiate from our parents - not necessarily the parents we still have, but the ones we've come to internalize in our minds - the more likely we are to act out old behavior patterns in our current life. My point here is not to blame parents or assume that all parental influences are negative. However, it's an unfortunate fact that as children, we were more likely to be affected by a single negative experience, lack of attunement or destructive outburst from a parent than by a series of positive experiences with them. This is simply because, as animals, we are designed to remember what scares us.

Even the most attuned of parents has lapses in which they lose their tempers or fail to respond sensitively to their children. Sadly, it is in these moments in our childhoods that we tended to identify with our parents or internalize the message they were communicating to us. For example, if a parent accused us of being lazy whenever he or she was feeling overwhelmed by the tasks at hand, we were likely to identify ourselves as lazy and still hear this accusation in our heads as adults.

Yet, why did we take on our parent's point of view in times of stress? As children, we relied on our parents for safety. If a parent suddenly responded with severe annoyance or harsh anger, we started to feel unsafe or traumatized. The size difference alone between an adult and a child causes a discrepancy in perception; while the child experiences an adult's angry outburst as intensely threatening, to the adult, the interaction seems like a mild moment of provocation. When children feel frightened by the very person they depend on for survival, they don't know which way to turn; they want to both run toward and away from the parent. Their only solution is to merge with the parent by unconsciously identifying with their aggressor. In other words, instead of fearing the parent, they identify with his or her point of view, finding it too emotionally threatening, not to mention physically impossible, to fight back.


As adults, if we fail to recognize how we were affected by negative early experiences, we run the risk of projecting our past onto our present interactions and relationships. By remaining aware of what triggers us from the past, we are less likely to recreate past scenarios and relive the emotions they evoked. The more we make sense of implicit memories and construct a cohesive narrative of our lives, the more we can differentiate from painful experiences and live free from the limitations they create.

To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on differentiation visit PsychAlive.org

 

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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