As children we absorb experiences and information around us without necessarily having the ability or maturity to defend ourselves and our best interests against it, or to make complete rational sense of it at the time. This is particularly true of behaviours and emotions both expressed and unexpressed in the relationships around us when we are children, as well as our own emotional responses to these relationships. As such, many experiences that we have as young people can be carried into adulthood in an unresolved state within us: events that we witnessed, that impacted upon us, sometimes even before we had words to even describe what we heard, saw or felt. And often before we are able to even distinguish what experiences are ours and which the responsibility of others with whom we may be in contact.
As we mature these unresolved states, confused responsibilities, conflicts and resulting mixed feelings from what we may have encountered, can be carried as powerful emotional experiences like shame, fear, disaffirmations or devaluing. These can take the form of internal conflicts expressed via the experience of ambivalence and manifesting in the choices we make in adult relationships. Ambivalence, for example, is the experience of holding two seemingly irreconcilable needs or wishes within ourselves, so that we struggle to choose one. Effectively, our unmet needs and unresolved, internalised conflicts become the drivers of our choices of partner, friends, careers, shaping our general life path. It is only when we begin to recognise patterns and connections between early life experiences and the apparent ‘coincidences’ or repeated mistakes that we see in our adult lives that we begin to suspect something is going on beyond our immediate awareness and understanding.
A few of the many examples of experiences that may remain unresolved into adulthood:
- early abandonment or rejection
- traumatic childhood experiences
- all forms of abuse
- emotionally unavailable parent or care-giver
- school difficulties and bullying
- poor or manipulative parenting
- dishonest, secretive or truth-stifling environments
- stressful or unstable environments (e.g. poverty, violence, housing insecurity)
- family scapegoating
- parental conflict and domestic violence
- parental alcoholism, promiscuity, substance misuse
- divorce and separation
Existential Analysis can help us see how our choices in life can be governed by our early needs to resolve conflicts which aren’t ours, make sense of ambiguity in others, mixed messages or abuse, find justice in trauma we may have suffered, and other emotional puzzles that can emerge in patterns of difficult relationships and struggle years or decades later as adults. It can often be too much to figure out on our own, or by trial and error, so Analysis can permit us the space to clarify and fully understand the wider framework within which we make choices in the present as we seek, through force of habit and need, to resolve issues and needs that may remain unmet from the past.
Some of the signs that we may be wrestling with unresolved issues from our past:
- repeated poor choices of partner
- destructive patterns of behaviour or lifestyle
- alcoholism, gambling and substance misuse
- infidelity and betrayal
- worry, depression and anxiety
- ‘not knowing who I am’
- ‘people pleasing’
- personal inauthenticity
- chronic insecurity
- co-dependent or destructive relationship choices
- volatile, histrionic or unstable relationships or behaviours
- self-criticism, self-harming or risk-taking behaviour
- over- or under-estimation of self
- difficulty making decisions
When we begin to recognise that our difficulties in the present may be the consequence of our inchoate attempts to resolve past situations we can take steps to resolving unmet needs directly. Resolving old needs and expressing old, pent-up emotions can allow us to heal, grow and mature as individuals and be better prepared to cope with or avoid adversity in the future.