Glenn Goldman, MA, LPC
Experienced, affordable counseling in Portland, Oregon



“Just don’t make me talk about my mother!”

Old stereotypes die hard. The image of the bespectacled Freudian psychoanalyst, notepad in hand, asking his reclining patient to talk about his relationship with his mother, is still with us. For many people, there is something uncomfortably cliché about the idea of talking about one’s mother to a therapist.

I’ve had clients in an initial consultation specifically request that we not talk about childhood issues. It’s not unusual for me to hear a statement like the following: “My problems are going on right now; they have nothing to do with what happened to me in the past.” After some further discussion, the underlying concern that usually emerges is around victimhood. I find that many clients tend to look upon discussion of childhood issues (sometimes referred to in the business as “family-of-origin issues”) as a kind of whining. Most people do not like the idea of blaming people from their past for their problems.

My response to this concern is, first and foremost, a sense of respect. I embrace the idea of individuals being accountable for their present-day choices as adults. Those who have fallen into a pattern of consistent finger-pointing and blame-assigning are usually suffering emotionally. I try to discourage clients from casting themselves in the role of the victim because it tends to prevent them from experimenting with more empowered approaches to their problems.

While many kinds of issues allow for a treatment approach that focuses entirely on the present, shedding light on family-of-origin dynamics can sometimes be extremely useful in terms of helping people learn new ways of approaching current problems.

For example, a lot of research has been done on attachment styles. There is now strong evidence that the way we attach as adults is correlated to the way we attached, or didn’t attach, as infants and children. By helping clients understand the importance of their early attachment relationships and the emotional messages they conveyed about the world (e.g., Is the world safe or dangerous? Are people friendly or hostile?), it’s possible to shed light on present-day patterns that consistently set us up for failure. The goal here is not to blame others for our problems, but to better understand our dysfunctional habits so we can learn new ones.

Of course, it’s important to bear in mind that some people truly were victimized as children. Adult survivors of childhood abuse have a lot of work to do around the fact that their emotional development was impaired. For people who grew up without a strong sense of warmth and security, but rather experienced severe ongoing stress and even trauma, it’s important for them to become mindful of the emotional impact of these circumstances so they can cultivate self-compassion as the foundation to their recovery.

The bottom line is that not all therapy requires a focus on one’s family of origin, but sometimes it helps to shine a light on our past to better understand our present and to help us move toward a more desired future.