On this last day of May, I have one more piece of mental health advice for you. It’s a tough subject, but I can tell you it’s a huge part of good and lasting mental health.
As a therapist, I have used a tool called a genogram. A genogram is similar to a family tree but it also includes emotional connections, traumas, and family patterns among generations. During one session with a client, I introduced the genogram idea to him. He agreed to participate, but I could see fear in his eyes. As he shared his family’s experiences and history, an unusual amount of challenging situations and trauma were uncovered. We spent time talking through each event and how it affected the next generation.
I asked him, “How does your family talk about these stories?” He responded, “We don’t.” It wasn’t the first time I heard about family history being surrounded in silence.
This client had come in to address the intense anxiety of his present. However, it became clear that the present anxiety was related to the way he dealt with (or in this case, had not dealt with) his past.
When people grow up in families that use silence to “deal” with the past, anxiety or depression can be the outcome.
How we make sense of our past can improve our mental health or deteriorate our mental health.
Having the freedom to talk openly about your past communicates, “Yes, we had hard things happen in our family and we got through them. Those things are a part of our story but they don’t define us.”
But long-term silence sends different messages:
If we talk about the past, it will hurt.
If we admit that our family had these happen what does it mean about us?
We don’t want to dishonor our relatives.
Secrets hidden away are not benign; they are malignant. They tend to grow and show up in our fears, reactions, emotions and the way we make meaning of life. We even store trauma from our past in our bodies.
For example, the person who experiences a car accident becomes afraid to drive again. A mother becomes obsessed with the way her daughter dresses because she is afraid her daughter will be assaulted like she was as a teenager, and the assault was blamed on the way she dressed.
When I had PTSD, my feet tingled, my left eye blurred, and I never felt safe. The unprocessed memories from my childhood were affecting my body -- I just didn’t know it at the time. As I did the hard work of dealing with the past, my mental health improved.
Our pasts influence our mental health. Once we become aware of this, we have the opportunity to either keep hiding the past or process it. We can bring it into the light and allow it become part of the story, but not our entire identity.
“Your wound is probably not your fault, but your healing is your responsibility.”
I hope this post encourages you to gently look at any part of your life that you are trying to avoid, hide or forget. I hope you will be brave and find safe people to talk about the truth of your past. And most of all, I hope you can come to see that your past does not define you.
Donna Durham, MMFT
President & Co-Founder