"There"s an old saying that, "We might be done with the past, but the past isn"t done with us." This is especially true in the case of interpersonal relationships. Everyone we meet, talk to, interact with, love, hate and care for has one thing in common. They are subject to our interpretations based on our earliest interpersonal experience of interaction namely, our attachment to our parent(s). Harry Stack Sullivan, a psychiatrist who extended Freudian psychoanalysis to the treatment of patients with severe mental illness, like schizophrenia, believed that people make parataxic distortions. And emotionally confuse current experiences with those from past ones. Sullivan believed that these distortions are defense mechanisms in which current relationships are perceived and judged according to a mode of reference established by an earlier experience. In other words, our perceptions and experiences of past emotional events can"t help but cloud current experience.
Humans come pre-wired for social connection.
That connection however, is expressed through our earliest interactions with our primary caregiver(s). Imagine a lima bean seed from elementary school science. The slow unfurling of growth dependent upon a unique combination of the push of the seedling against first the husk of the seed. Then the grains of dirt around and above it, not to mention the amount of water and sunlight available to the growing plant.
It seems to make sense, that if this seedling could think, it"s subsequent experiences of physical growth would be met by anticipation of similar ground, water and sunlight forces. After all, we tend to anticipate what we have experienced. This is true for all of us.
We enter a grocery store and anticipate cereal boxes will be stacked on aisles; not on the floor or hanging from the ceiling. This is simply the way it"s always been. While more complicated and often subconscious, both our anticipation and experience of other people is guided by our experiences with our primary caregivers; much more than any of us think.
In fact, it wouldn"t be an overstatement to suggest that in interactions with your husband, wife, partner, friend or child only 20% of the emotional experience is about the other person. While 80% is really driven by your past relationships (likely childhood) and past emotional experiences.
So what can you do about this?
How can you make certain that what you are experiencing interpersonally is accurate and not an amalgamation of past experience? The bad news is you can"t; not fully anyway. The good news is there is something you can do: Pay attention. Notice your experience, ask clarifying questions and avoid reacting too soon.
You have more power than you think. And if you need to respond forcefully, don"t worry, you"ll certainly be able to. But the truth of the matter is that most of the time you don"t have to. In a post on the Eugene Therapy Facebook Page, they posted an article that explained how to use the DEAR approach (Detect, Empathize, Ask, Reflect) technique to connect better with kids. This same approach can be used with adults in your life too! The article suggests taking a step back from your own emotions before reacting. Look underneath the behavior of the other person for intention and avoid using "why" questions but rather paraphrase or summarize what you hear.
Check yourself before making assumptions about the other person.
Take your time. Go slow and remember that especially when stressed, 80% of your emotional reactions to others are likely about past experiences and even other people. What you"re experiencing now is just a reminder of the past, but like most things, you can handle it better than you think."
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