NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Have You Internalized Your Parents' Anxiety and Emotional Insecurities?

Children internalize their parents' emotional experiences.   In my prior article, I provided a clinical vignette where the client feared taking risks because she grew up with parents who were anxious and risk averse (see my article: Balancing Fear of Failure vs. Future Regret).  In this article, I'm focusing on how anxiety and emotional insecurities are internalized intergenerational at a young age and continue into adulthood.

Have You Internalized Your Parents' Anxiety and Emotional Insecurities?

One of the advantages of attending psychotherapy is that you and your psychotherapist can work on separating your parents' emotions and experiences and yours and, if the therapy is successful, you won't pass on these traits to your children (see my article: Intergenerational Family Dynamics and Your Unresolved Trauma Can Have Emotional Repercussions For Your Children).

Since young children see the world through their parents' eyes, they usually internalize their parents' emotions and view of the world.  This can be an intergenerational pattern where these emotions and  views are passed down from one generation to the next for many generations.

When there has been psychological trauma in an older generation, this is often passed on to subsequent generations--even if the relatives from the generation with direct experience of the trauma never discuss it (see my article: Psychotherapy and Intergenerational Trauma).

For instance, grandchildren of Holocaust survivors will often say that neither their grandparents nor there parents ever discussed the Holocaust, so they don't understand how they internalized their grandparents' traumatic experiences.  But traumatic experiences don't have to be discussed for internalization because the internalization occurs on an unconscious level.

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Internalizing Your Parents' Anxiety and Emotional Insecurities
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how anxiety and emotional insecurities are passed down and internalized intergenerationally:

Tania came to therapy after struggling with anxiety and emotional insecurities about money for her entire life.

Prior to coming to therapy, Tania had always felt that she could handle her problems on her own.  When her friends told her that they were starting psychotherapy, Tania couldn't understand why they needed to get help in therapy.  It didn't make sense to her because she considered her friends to be "strong" and her view of psychotherapy was that only people who are "weak" need to go to therapy (see my article: Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Going to Therapy Means You're "Weak").

When she was in her 20s, Tania believed that she would be in a successful career and own a home by the time she was in her mid-30s.  But, although she had a successful career and she was in a relationship with a man that she loved, she couldn't bring herself to make an investment in a home.

When she turned 38, she was doing well financially, but she feared making such a major investment as buying a home.  Being only two years away from turning 40, she envisioned the years stretching out before her and remaining in a rental apartment with no prospect for change.

Her romantic partner, Dan, who lived with Tania, told her that he wanted them to buy an apartment together in the next couple of years, but Tania was too afraid to do it.

Tania also told her psychotherapist that her financial advisor told her that she could afford to buy an apartment and encouraged her to make the investment, but she was too afraid--even though she knew logically that she could afford it.

When Tania and her psychotherapist talked about her family background, Tania revealed that her parents were first-generation Americans and her grandparents struggled financially to come to the United States.

Even though Tania's parents eventually overcame the poverty they endured as children, they never got over those experiences.  Her father worked three jobs in order to make ends meet and, eventually, he started his own business, which was successful.  But, despite their hard-earned financial success, her parents never overcame their fear that everything they worked for could go up in smoke and they could become poor again.  They continued to live very frugally due to their emotional insecurities.

Tania's psychotherapist provided Tania with psychoeducation about intergenerational trauma.  She also told Tania that it appeared that Tania internalized her grandparents' and parents' anxiety and insecurities and that they could work towards helping her to separate her experience from her grandparents' and parents' experiences.

Although it made sense to Tania that she internalized her family's experiences, she didn't feel hopeful that her feelings would ever change.  These feelings were so ingrained in her that she couldn't believe she could ever feel differently.

Her psychotherapist talked to Tania about starting with Somatic Experiencing to "uncouple" her grandparents' and parents' experiences from her own.  She explained to Tania that, although she was close to her parents and grandparents, she needed to begin to separate her emotions and beliefs rather than remain entangled in her family's beliefs and emotions.

Tania acknowledged that she knew objectively that she could afford to buy her own apartment rather than continuing to rent.  She also knew that it would be a wise financial decision for her when she looked at it logically.  But when she thought about buying an apartment, she also felt dread that she would be making a mistake.  Tania told her psychotherapist that she couldn't understand how she could know one thing logically but feel something else emotionally.

Using Somatic Experiencing, Tania's psychotherapist asked her to begin by allowing herself to feel the excitement and anticipated happiness of buying an apartment with Dan.  She asked Tania to put her anxiety and insecurities aside for the moment and whenever Tania felt these feelings were about to intrude, she should continue to put them aside.

At first, it was difficult for Tania to keep her anxiety separate from her excitement.  She would start to feel the excitement and joy of buying a place with Dan, which she really wanted, but then her anxiety would intrude.  She followed her psychotherapist's suggestions about how to put her anxiety aside for now and, eventually, she was able to identify a sense of happiness and that she felt it in her chest.

Tania and her psychotherapist stayed with the sense of happiness that Tania felt in her chest and worked towards expanding that feeling.  She was eventually able to associate the feeling of happiness in her chest with various images, colors and a sense of physical warmth.  She felt that these feelings, sensations and images were her own and not related to her family's experiences, so she was able to uncouple her experience from her family's.

After a few months, Tania's psychotherapist recommended that they use EMDR therapy to work on the anxiety and insecurities.

As they set up the EMDR therapy protocol, Tania said that her negative belief about herself was, "I'm powerless."  She explained to her therapist that her feelings of powerlessness involved a fear that she would, in some undefined way, lose everything if she and Dan bought an apartment together.

Using EMDR therapy, they worked for several months on current memories and childhood memories that were involved with Tania's anxiety and insecurities.

After a while, Tania had a strong felt sense that she was different from her family and that their experiences weren't her experiences.  Rather than feeling powerless, she felt empowered.  At that point, she realized that what she knew logically came together with how she felt on an emotional level.

Shortly after completing EMDR therapy, Tania and Dan began looking for an apartment.  She remained in therapy to deal with the normal stress of apartment hunting, but she no longer had an irrational fear of buying an apartment.

She continued to be close to her family, but she also felt like an autonomous adult who was no longer affected by her family's intergenerational trauma.

Children tend to internalize their parents' experiences at a young age.  If their parents are emotionally secure people, the chances are that the children will also grow up to feel secure.

But if the parents are anxious and insecure, as illustrated in the clinical vignette above, the children will most likely feel anxious and insecure.  These experiences are often passed down from one generation to the next.  This is usually an unconscious process, even if the older generation never speaks about their traumatic experiences.

Getting Help in Therapy
Intergenerational trauma doesn't have to be a "life sentence" of traumatic experiences passed down from one generation to the next.

Trauma therapy can be an effective way of overcoming trauma.

Trauma therapy can help to break the trauma cycle.

Rather than suffering on your own, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

A skilled psychotherapist can help you to overcome your anxiety and insecurities so that you can lead a more fulfilled life (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome psychological trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.