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Thoughts from my therapy room

Why don't I like broccoli?

A reflection on why therapists are interested in childhood.

My dear friend once joked with me and her daughter that the role of a psychotherapist is to ask clients about their childhood, and then explain to them why they don’t like broccoli. This fabulous and witty one liner has become a standard joke about what psychotherapy is in my family. It is after all a bit of a cliché that therapists always want to talk about your childhood, and you might wonder how can it even help? Right from the beginnings of psychotherapy, Freud identified connections between our relationships with our parents and our wellbeing, and although psychotherapy has developed significantly, it is often still part of the conversation in therapy.

If you seek therapy as an adult, hoping for support with something arising in your life now, you might wonder why your childhood is relevant to your current experience, or you may worry your therapist might intend to blame or criticise your parents. Even if it feels irrelevant, it is often an important part of the therapeutic process to understand as well as your current experience and life, how you grew up, and learned to be in the world. My friend wittily made the connection between childhood and current experiences, but the more common questions that clients want to understand through therapy are “why do I do this?”, or “why don’t I react like my friend when this happens?”.

Often for therapists, there are clues about the current suffering of a client in their past. Louis Cozolino reminds us that psychotherapy works by “diving beneath the surface” of a client’s problems. For some clients, supporting them to bring past experience or difficulty into their awareness can help them to understand and manage their current situation better. Sometimes, clients might be re-enacting a past experience without realising it, such as anger with a partner or colleague, which might be linked to anger with someone else. People who rely on the validation of others to feel good about themselves, may not have received as much validation as they needed when they were younger, and have been unable to develop a strong sense of who they are. So exploration of these patterns can be very helpful through the therapeutic journey. But what if we had a really positive childhood, with parents who met us and responded to us well?

Regardless of the childhood we had, we learn how to interact with the world from the people we grow up around. Neurobiology is a relatively new science, and we are learning a lot about how patterns form in our brains from these early experiences. The rate at which our brains grow when we are very young, means the impact of early experience can have a significant impact on our development.

The youngest member of a very large family might have found it hard to make their voice heard amongst the older and louder ones, which as an adult may show up as finding it hard to speak in large meetings at work. An only child may have felt the expectation of their parents as being more than they could meet, showing up later as taking on too much responsibility. As adults, when these early experiences are unacknowledged or causing us pain, we sometimes unwittingly respond to difficulty from younger, damaged parts of ourselves. As we bring them into our awareness, alongside all the things we know about ourselves as adults, it may help us to find a way to find our voice in an important meeting, or to realise that we don’t need to do everything on our own.

So if your therapist invites reflection on your childhood, it’s to explore your relational patterns, to help you understand your current relationships and responses to others. It’s unlikely I’m afraid that it will help your therapist to tell you why you don’t like broccoli, although you never know!

Cozolino, L., (2016) Why therapy works, p34, London: Norton & Co


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