As a counselor you hear it all the time when working with adults. “When I was a child I saw…” or “When I was young my dad did…” “When I was seven my mom left…”. Those phrases represent real hurt and pain in a person’s life and should never be downplayed – they truly are significant. The problem is when the entire sentence becomes “When I was a child I saw my dad hit my mom…and that’s why I hit my wife.” “When I was young my dad drank and that’s why I can’t control my drinking.” When I was seven my mom left and that’s why I can’t have healthy relationships.” Please don’t misunderstand me and don’t come chasing me down with pitchforks; I KNOW that childhood experiences have a tremendous impact on a person’s perception and how they see/interpret the world . When something terrible happens in our past it hurts, and that hurt doesn’t just go away. But here’s the catch: the hurt, the pain, the trauma, and the perception; they DO NOT control your choices. You are always in control of the choices you make. Your actions are your own.
I have read several articles recently, claiming to be “open letters” to family members about the pain that was caused by poor choices made by adults. Sometimes it was a dad leaving a home and the daughter (now grown) blames the father because she can’t trust men because of the father, and another was about a dad who watched pornography and how the child (now grown) can’t have a healthy sexual relationship because of the father. The past can hurt, but it doesn’t control you. It can either motivate you or bring you down; the choice is yours and yours.
You have two options here – stay how you are and blame your past/the people in your past, or change. You cannot go back in time and change what happened, and even if you could you might just find something else to blame for your bad choices (yes, that last one was supposed to sting). Having strong relationships, getting ahead in life, being successful and happy – these things take work! Sometimes that work includes a lot of therapy and practice, but never lose sight of your goal. Understanding that you have a choice and being aware of your actions is one of the first steps on the path to wellness.
Yes, childhood trauma can make doing the right thing and having healthy relationships more difficult, but it doesn’t control you. “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” – Viktor Frankl. If anyone had a right to lie down and quit on life it was Viktor Frankl. The man survived the Nazi concentration camps, while losing his family and all he held dear while in there. What did he do? He developed a new theory of counseling called Logotherapy (meaning therapy). There are A LOT of people who have it WAY worse than any of us.
There is a reason why responsibility is a pillar of several prominent counseling theories – it’s liberating. Taking responsibility gives you the opportunity to assume ownership of your life and finally have some control. You’ve been in control the whole time, you just didn’t know it. “In therapy someone cares enough about the patient to make him face a truth he has spent his whole life trying to avoid: he is responsible for his own behavior” – William Glasser. The person you are is the sum of the choices you have made throughout your life. I used to be a person who blamed all my bad choices on other people, other things, and outside influences. My change came when I allowed myself to realize that I cannot control other people or my environment…all I can control is myself. And as Viktor Frankl so perfectly put it, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Change yourself…be better. There are two types of people in this world; those who use obstacles and challenges as a crutch and an excuse for being less than they could be, and those who use those challenges as motivation to be better. Which are you?