Have you shied away from psychotherapy out of fear of having to talk about your mother and father? We sometimes laugh about psychoanalysis and its tendency to dig into the past, yet there is a sense of sobriety when psychotherapists ask such probing questions. There is intent behind what they do.
London psychotherapist María R. de Almeida says that asking about mum and dad is less about excavating the past and more about discovering if patients are attempting to live the past in the present. When people do that, they run into all sorts of problems.
It all boils down to what psychotherapy refers to as ‘filters’. Another way to understand filters is to see them as the way people view the world around them. In either case, these filters are developed early in life as a result of circumstances, surroundings, and learned behaviours.
The Poverty Filter
Psychotherapy recognises a number of filters capable of affecting how people see the world. One of them is the poverty filter. Imagine a little boy growing up in abject poverty despite mother and father working extremely hard to overcome it. As an adult, he may become obsessive about wealth and possessions.
In early adulthood, he might make the decision to never go back to being poor. That is not a bad decision in and of itself, but it might lead to an unhealthy obsession manifesting itself in him being unable to part with his money. Non-essential expenditures are rarely entertained because he doesn’t want to reduce his bank balance.
The opposite circumstance can also occur. A person growing up in abject poverty might end up believing, as an adult, that he or she is trapped in that sort of life forever. There may be no effort to get out of poverty because mum and dad never managed to escape it.
The Approval Filter
Another filter that negatively affects people is the approval filter. This may start at a very young age, when a child feels there is nothing that they can do to make their parents happy. Things are only made worse when their younger sibling can do no wrong. The older sibling could learn to see the world as patently unfair, with some people being given preferential treatment over others.
In adulthood, the once little child could view life through the lens of being a constant failure. They may perceive failure even when they succeed. And when they do truly fail, it’s only because life is unfair.
How One Sees the World Matters
Psychotherapists ask about mum and dad because they know that how a person sees the world as a child eventually matters in adulthood. A trained psychotherapist understands the fundamental principle of Freudism: how a person learns to see the world as a child affects how they live life as an adult.
Most of Freud’s techniques for treating patients have long since been abandoned. Even some of his more extreme theories have been put on the shelf. But the fundamental truth that the past can affect the present is still a foundational principle of psychotherapy. It underscores the concept of digging into a patient’s past to understand their present.
If you have ever been asked about your past by a psychotherapist, know that the point was not just to encourage narcissism. Nor was the point of the exercise to get you to blame your parents for all that is wrong. Rather, your psychotherapist was trying to understand the filters your brain put in place while you were young. Those filters affect how you see the world today.