Since intrusive feelings are the main cause of our distress, the main obstacle to us feeling happier, you’d probably like to know a bit more about them, such as, “Where do these feelings come from?”
As difficult as it may be to believe, intrusive feelings are actually echoes of feelings we experienced when we were younger. Sometimes it is awful things that happened to us recently, such as being in a terrible accident, or being raped. Mostly though, these intrusive feelings have their roots in overwhelming distress we experienced when we were young children or babies.
As I’ll explain later:
-almost all of us were traumatized when we were young
-the situations that traumatize us may not appear dramatic from an adult perspective
-trauma and childhood attachment are closely intertwined, and it doesn’t matter if we can’t remember the traumatizing events.
As with trauma that happens in adulthood, such as with soldiers in war or people who are raped, the distress does not end once we get out of the situation. We are often left with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. And the core characteristics of PTSD are the triggering of intrusive experiences and the avoidance of the intrusive feelings, which always makes the problem worse. The same pattern happens when we are traumatized in infancy or childhood, but the ways we developed to avoid the intrusive feelings become quite fixed by adulthood, becoming part of our personality.
Imagine Charlie, who was born to a doting mother. His father was initially happy to have a son but became increasingly resentful and angry that his wife was no longer focused on him. His father began directing his anger towards Charlie, always finding reasons to yell at and hit him, especially when his mother wasn’t around to protect him. Now imagine how Charlie might feel when he is around men when he grows up? How do you think he will feel when he’s around men with power over him, such as teachers or bosses? Of course it is perfectly understandable that Charlie is going to feel distressed in these situations. What’s Charlie is not going to realize is, “Oh, I’m just upset now because my father used to hit me. I’ve been triggered and these feelings have nothing to do with this man, who is just doing his job.” Instead Charlie will assume that he is a wimp for feeling nervous, or that his fear is due to his boss being a threat.
In reality though, we are all Charlie. We go through our lives being triggered into distressing feelings, we have little or no awareness that this is happening, and we tend to believe that our distress is due to the situation we are in.
If you have some insight, and realize that your distress is out of proportion to the situation, you just might go to see a psychotherapist. And you’d be pretty hard pressed to find an experienced therapist, or couples therapist, who doesn’t believe that people’s difficulties have their roots in childhood distress. And this is backed up by a growing avalanche of scientific data demonstrating the strong link between mistreatment or distress in early childhood and later distress in adulthood.