WASHINGTON, January 22. 2014 – I was running with a friend the other day when she told me about a continuous disagreement she has with her parents. They want her to have children. She does not.
My friend Jane described how her mother and father worry and lament the situation. It angers her to no end: although she is in her forties, Jane still gets steamed. She feels like she is being attacked when they complain, and she struggles to hold it all in.
In private, Jane tells me that she once tried to use logic and rationale to get her parents to understand. Jane thought that if she could just get them to see where she was coming from, they would relax and accept her choices.
As I was listening to her, I could not help but see her as a little girl in trouble. Although she is an adult, the energy surrounding the issue between Jane and her parents felt very old. Indeed, Jane said her parents have reminded her of their position on procreating since she was a teenager. As a therapist, this was in my wheelhouse, so I began to advise Jane on her struggle with her parents.
“These are their concerns, they are not yours,” I explained. “It might be better for you to just accept where your parents are and not make their issue yours.” While we ran, the image of my friend’s problem projected itself in my head. The problem was graphically outlined in a box, and within this mentally constructed rectangle was a picture of Jane as a little girl across a divide from her parents. I later named this vision Jane’s “Conflict Box.”
As we ran, I asked Jane to tell me about the current difficulties in her life. As she relayed her problems, I asked her what she felt like when she experiences an intense disagreement or feels totally misunderstood. Jane thought for a moment and told me that she continues to struggle from the same types of feelings today as she did when she was a child. Her great internal conflicts always involved her parents.
Based on my observation, I told Jane that as adults, we cannot help but carry our earliest struggles, the materials of this “Conflict Box,” into our adult lives. Unfortunately, our most difficult feelings seem to play on repeat for years.
As we made a turn on the pathway, I began to think about another friend’s struggle. Ever since he can remember, Mark has always been taking care of his mother. He told me that he grew up perpetually concerned for his own mother, and that he felt forced to care for her even when he did not quite know how. Growing up, Mark frequently would have to step in to solve the most basic problems since his mother was easily overwhelmed. As an adolescent, he began to grow angry at his mother for her dependence. The anger never faded.
This set of feelings will forever be Mark’s Conflict Box, his cross to bear. When he feels that someone he cares for desperately needs assistance, he can’t help but try. And although he always helps, Mark still has to consciously shut down his anger reflex. Mark’s Conflict Box has come with him all this way. I have helped him learn that although it isn’t going away anytime soon, just knowing it exists is half the battle. Now that he understands why he wants to react, he can make a rational decision not to.
Sigmund Freud taught us that when we subconsciously react to someone with an old feeling from the past, we “project” that feeling on to them. Every time Mark gets mad over helping someone too needy, he is really getting mad at his mother. Every time Jane gets mad at others, she reflects her subconscious anger at her parents.
When we are trapped by the negative subconscious feelings from our youth, we behave automatically. If possible, it would be helpful for us to take the time to figure out what our own individual wound is, our own Conflict Box. This process takes time: understanding ourselves is a deliberate, layer-by-layer procedure. But once we have isolated and understood our feelings and our emotional triggers, we can begin to live with the problems we cannot help but carry with us. We can acknowledge that the problem exists without having to behave reflexively.
When we get familiar with our Conflict Box, we give ourselves the peace of mind to make new and better choices. This freedom is a key to happiness, and could be the best present you could give your loved ones – and yourself.