Dilemmas: I'm obsessed with my past

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The Independent Culture
Cheryl has a loving husband and children, but finds it impossible to get over the fact that her parents never told her they loved her


If you ask 10 people about their childhoods, nine of them will have some major gripe. Their parents favoured their elder brother; they were loved only if they passed exams; they were not encouraged to go to university; they were never listened to. I did my share of whining - until I realised that we all have pasts that, viewed in a certain light, can be deemed dreadful. But it's how we dealt with it that matters, not what kind of past it was.

Billions of people have had loving parents who didn't say they loved them and never cuddled them, and are now as happy as bees. It wasn't Cheryl's parents' thing to display emotion. But that doesn't mean they didn't love her.

It's whether you felt loved that matters. And whether you were loved or not, or felt it or not, it need not be a bar to feeling loved or being loved now.

What Cheryl's problem is now, is ruminating about it. Ruminating about anything - your childhood, an ancient slight, guilt about what you did to someone long ago - is a sign of depression. And I think she ought to race off to her doctor and get proper treatment for it. Obsessive thinking is the problem, not her childhood.

Now, if she can't bear to do that, she should make a plan to ruminate for half an hour and then do something else for an hour, then ruminate for another half an hour. This way, at least she'll learn to be in control of her ruminations, and that's far, far more important than trying to discover what's wrong by ruminating. I've probably spent months of my life ruminating; it's got me nowhere. If it helps Cheryl, then she should ruminate for 24 hours a day. But if it isn't working, she should stop it. It's barking up the wrong tree.

Of course, it could be that she's obsessing about her childhood because it was so happy that she wants to live in it; what's happening now is gloomy in comparison. Dwelling in the past can be a security blanket.

My feeling is that her husband is right, though he may not be expressing his instinct in a sympathetic way. To tell someone to snap out of it is useless. To tell them that what is past is past and that they have the chance of living a completely new life now, is kind and sympathetic.

Because the sooner Cheryl can say to herself that it is all over, and stop dragging the past behind her like a terrible lorry-load of rubbish, the sooner she can rid herself of her childish anxieties, start again, and learn to be herself. While she ruminates about the past, she will never be free of it.


It's time to talk

Feeling sad about lack of love and affection as a child is an entirely appropriate response. Cheryl has got on with life, by marrying "a loving husband" and raising two children. Now she has come to a point where she can address the past, and talk in depth about her sadness.

Admitting to this is a great start to Cheryl sharing her burden. She should not stop in pursuit of the healing experience gained when we have the understanding of another person. If Cheryl adopts the "pull yourself together" approach, more troubling mental states may develop.


Milton Keynes

Hug Small Cheryl

My mother told me that there would be a time in life when I would have to mother myself, when she couldn't be there. She had been told that by her mother (born in 1896).

Cheryl identifies the hurt as both parents being unable to say "I love you", and lack of the security that comes from being hugged. No wonder she feels sad.

Pragmatically, she can give a few minutes every day to Small Cheryl by saying, "Come here and let me give you a cuddle, you lovely child". (Hugging a pillow at the same time is nothing to be ashamed of.) In time, Small Cheryl will be reassured.

Cheryl's husband can also help by giving his wife hugs on request. Small Cheryl thus won't come between them, but will be a means for better communication.



Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I'm 18 and since I passed my driving test, my mum's let me use the car if she doesn't need it. I'd drive to college most days, and go out in it in the evening if I wasn't drinking. But for the last six months, since she remarried, things have been difficult. This man, who I don't get on with, shares the car with Mum. She bought it, but he pays the insurance, parking permit, servicing etc. So it's sort of half his. He's now virtually stopped me using the car, saying he never knows when he "might" want it. I could understand this, but for the last three months he's hardly used it at all; he's out at work all day anyway. He also says I leave the seat too far forward and the radio tuned to the wrong channel. I'm starting to hate him for this; it seems so petty. Mum says I must sort it out with him, not her. What can I do?

Yours sincerely, Ewan