One of the key insights in psychotherapy is that an event in itself doesn’t have meaning: events gain meaning through the personal filter of the experiencing individual. Four people at the same event, because they have four different filters or expectations, will experience it in four different ways. Using the imaginary example of observers of a fight in a car park, this article explores personal filters and their role in making meaning. We conclude with an explanation of what this means for the process of emotional healing in psychotherapy.
All the people and events in this story are fictitious, based on common patterns and processes in psychotherapy.
The parking space
It’s Saturday afternoon on a busy town centre car park. It’s a working day for Ken and he’s already 10 minutes late for his next appointment. He can see the only space in the car park in front of him. It’s his third time of driving round and it’s only just become vacant. He’s noticed it, but he has too many things on his mind. On his lap as he drives is the paperwork for the next place he needs to visit. He knows the building is near, but just needs to get his bearings, so he decides to stop his car next to the space before he pulls in, just to check where he is. He then sees another car drive into the space right in front of him. As he sees the other driver get out of his car and walk towards the exit, Ken’s anger boils over. He jumps out of his car, runs ahead of the other man and stops six feet in front of him with his fists clenched and his face crimson.
‘That was MY SPACE!’, Ken yells.
‘Sorry?’, says the other man, confused.
‘That was MY SPACE and YOU took it! You could SEE I was just about to drive in, you selfish IDIOT!’
The other man looks back at where he has parked his car and continues to look puzzled. Ken reasons, ‘Not only has he taken my space, he’s playing the innocent to wind me up.’ He thinks, ‘This always happens to me; and this time I’ll teach the man who takes what should be mine a lesson he won’t forget.’ Enraged, Ken lunges his head at the other man’s chest, throwing the full force of his body weight at him.
There is nothing in the act of driving into a parking space that inherently inspires violence. The event has taken this turn because of the meaning Ken has brought to it.
When we are under more stress or pressure than we can manage, we return to a previous and younger version of ourselves. In Transactional Analysis this is called the Child ego state. In other words, under pressure we return to our own childhood, our past resonating with our present. The reason is that as a child we are not in charge, we are subject to forces beyond our control, to decisions others make that we have no part in but must submit to; so when, as an adult, we find ourselves under pressure and not feeling in charge, subject to forces beyond our control, to decisions others make that we have no part in, we return to childhood emotions. If, as a child, we were assured that superior forces – usually parents – had our best interests at heart, then as an adult in the Child ego state we can be reassured. If, however, we felt frightened and abandoned in childhood, then as an adult under unmanageable stress we will be frightened and abandoned, or feel the retrospective anger that we couldn’t express as a child.
If Ken had felt loved and cared for in childhood, if his emotions had been managed well by his parents, he wouldn’t now be in this position. Instead, Ken’s childhood was one where he experienced chronic emotional neglect. He was the youngest by 10 years of 4 children. Seeing that he was defenceless, his older siblings made him the target of cruel games. He always felt left out and not listened to. His parents were never there to defend him: his father was barely ever at home for reasons Ken never understood, and his mother was in a constant state of being overwhelmed, feeling abandoned by her husband. Ken never got what he wanted. His clothes were all hand-me-downs. When he wanted a toy or a game he was always told to wait until his birthday or Christmas, and then he was always disappointed. At mealtimes his mother wouldn’t serve the food onto plates, but leave it in a central pot for everyone to help themselves. Ken stood no chance against the force of his older siblings’ rush for the pot, and he was always left a little hungry. His mother didn’t ever notice. Whenever he tried to point it out, his mother would ask him the same rhetorical question, barely comprehensible to a little boy: ‘Will you shut up, Ken? Is there anything you don’t complain about?’ He stopped telling her, and eventually kept all his other ‘complaints’ to himself.
Ken’s childhood emotional-relational blueprint is that no one is there to look out for him. This is the ongoing filter or default expectation through which he experiences the world. His ongoing baseline for stress is therefore high, and is easily reached. (For information on emotional-biological stress reactions, click here.) So when Ken is already late, lost, and under pressure, and he sees the other man drive into the space he wants, his formative blueprint filters the experience to mean what he already expected: ‘I never get what I want because someone else always takes it; I am left out, not listened to, small; and I am undefended.’ The undercurrent of unexpressed rage he’s carried all his life rises to the surface: ‘No more. This time my complaint will be heard, loud and clear.’
The other driver could not have been expected to have any idea why he was being attacked.
Ken’s assault on the other man is witnessed by four people, two women and two men. Their own experiences, their own meaning-making and responses result from their individual formative blueprints or filters.
Abbie is 26, but is usually assumed by strangers to be around 14 years old. It isn’t just that she is small: she has the physical demeanour of a child who hasn’t learned adult confidence. She has a quiet whispering voice and is easily startled. When she sees the two men fighting she means to put both hands over her face to hide the horror of violence, but instead she puts only one hand up and physically freezes in that position, looking mentally absent. This is the response of someone whose body is flooded with stress hormones, whose physical system is on red alert. Because the meaning she makes of two men fighting is that she is in imminent danger with no hope of escape, she is in the freeze position of the emotional-biological alert known as fight, flight or freeze. (For more on this, click here.) No matter that the two men are 20 feet away and that neither one of them has noticed her presence. External facts don’t matter here: Abbie’s experiential blueprint is one of violence and lack of safety from as young as she can remember, brutal attacks by her father on anyone he considered was ‘disrespecting’ him, including her mother, her brother, their neighbours, and herself. When her father’s aggression was aimed at her, her father didn’t always hit her, but the threat was enough for her to expect the worst and freeze in existential horror, recalling the worst incident: ‘Can my little frame survive another beating like last time, when mommy had to take me to hospital, and then when I came home he beat me again for disrespecting him and showing him up and I was too scared to go to hospital again?’ For traumatised Abbie, with what is commonly called post-traumatic stress, seeing Ken attack the other man doesn’t evoke a memory of her father’s violence: it is a re-enactment, the filter of the unresolved visceral past overlaying the present tense. In the nature of emotional trauma it is possible, as she stands there frozen, that she experiences the body blows of her father as though he is stood over her now.
Ben has a radically different response. When he heard the noise, he got out of his car and stood next to a wall to get a better view because, for him, this is hilarious. He throws back his head and laughs at the sight of two men fighting. In his upbringing, he never had to worry about violence, and he never felt in danger. He’d say he had great parents who provided him with everything he needed, took him to all the clubs he was involved in, bought him all the equipment he needed for the sports he enjoyed. Both of his parents are sporty, too, so they gave him all the encouragement he needed to not only compete, but be the best and win.
What isn’t in Ben’s awareness is that his parents passed on to him their inability to process difficult emotions – anger, fear, and sadness. His parents treated everything as a competition or as a joke. This was a racket or emotional cover-up to hide the fact that all emotions except happiness were problematic for them – and now also for Ben. (For more on racket emotions, click here.) Neither sets of Ben’s grandparents taught his parents about emotions, so they couldn’t teach him. As a young boy competing in track events he was upset at coming third or fourth rather than first. When he looks back now, he remembers that his parents told him at 7 years old to ‘grow up’, ‘man up’, ‘don’t be a baby’, while laughing at his tears. He’d tell you they did the right thing, as they made him tougher and turned him into a winner. He will manage in life with his emotionally avoidant attachment style until the day he becomes committed to a partner who wants emotional depth from him that he doesn’t know how to give, or until he meets an emotional crisis he can’t avoid and doesn’t have the resources to manage. (For more on avoidant attachment, click here.) For now, he’ll take in the sight with glee and be more than ready to turn the violence he witnesses into an entertaining story to tell his friends.
Seeing the fight, Carrie leaps into action with a smile, trying to gather all the observers together and herd them away, assuming that they need her protection from harm. Her filter is based on the fact that, as a child, she never felt emotionally looked after or cared for. Since the connection between child and parent is existential – the child knows, on some level, that she cannot survive without her parents – it is terrifying for a child to have the parental connection threatened or severed. When, due to the unconscious negligence of parents, the connection of care with the child is threatened, it is common for the child to maintain it by reversing the relationship: the child looks after the parents. Thus the child – and then the adult – gains their entire self-worth by being useful, by looking after others, by saving them from distress. This rescuing position is a proxy for the child saving herself from the distress of potential abandonment: she cannot be abandoned, she hopes, if she is useful or necessary to the parents’ well-being.
The adult rescuer therefore needs someone they can identify as a victim: then the rescuer has someone to look after, someone who needs them, reaffirming the childhood blueprint. The act of helping by a non-rescuer is distinct from the act of a rescuer in one important respect. If a non-rescuer offers help and it isn’t needed, they easily move on as there is nothing at stake and no emotional repercussion. But if a rescuer offers to rescue and it is rejected, the person’s fundamental condition of self-worth has been denied: the relational blueprint feels like it is under attack, resulting in a feeling of utter rejection and/or defensive anger. How the other observers in the car park respond to Carrie trying to rescue and ferry them away is therefore critical to her experience of feeling valued or rejected.
Upon seeing the fight break out, Don immediately gets out his phone and calls the police. Don is a financially thriving businessman, and his success has depended on following in his father’s footsteps: meticulously dressed, meticulously spoken, meticulously organised, meticulously polite, successfully academic, with an unwavering respect for good order and authority, without which nothing can function, he says. He remembers the pride on his father’s face when he tidied his toys away, lining them up neatly on his dedicated toy shelf. This memory of pleasure in organisation, in making his father happy, is his strongest recollection from childhood: he has no memory of actually playing with the toys. He remembers the interest his father took in his Maths and, later, his Business Studies and Commerce homework. ‘A chip off the old block’, his father used to say, looking at his son admiringly. Indeed, he cannot recall his dad being interested in anything else he did – just in him being organised, having a respectable personal presentation and doing well academically. Since this is how Don won approval of paternal authority, it now feels natural for him to turn to authority to report the disruption of good order so it can be restored.
The implications for psychotherapy
The most common stereotypical phrase used in fiction from the mouth of a counsellor or psychotherapist is: ‘How does that make you feel?’ As this article has shown, the question is incorrectly framed: no event makes anyone feel anything. The driver parking his car in the space Ken wanted did not make Ken attack him, nor did his attack make any of the four observers respond in the ways they did. Rather, the way someone experiences an event tells us a great deal about that person’s developmental blueprint, their filtering process, and it is to this personal filtering that the person responds: Ken with his fury at being overlooked again; Abbie with her trauma in the presence of violence; Ben with his avoidant laughter; Carrie with her felt need to rescue; and Don with his need to restore order.
The origins of all personal filters are in childhood, when we are utterly dependent on others to meet our needs, when our experience with carers provides answers to the basic questions of existence. It is then that we make meaning, arriving at our answers to such fundamental questions as: Is the world a safe place? Can my needs be met? Can others be trusted? Am I allowed to express my feelings? Am I unconditionally loveable? If there are conditions on being loved, what must I do to be loved?
Answers to these questions in early childhood results in one of four attachment styles – secure, avoidant, ambivalent or disorganised attachment – meaning one of four ways of being in relationship with carers, depending on the child’s experience of having fundamental needs met or unmet. Our attachment style translates in adulthood to the way we relate to others generally and to romantic partners particularly.
We also develop what in Transactional Analysis is called a script, an implicit childhood decision about the way our life is going to be, based on the sum total of early experiences. Unless we become aware of it, we spend the rest of our life in transference, transferring the experience of childhood to the present tense, unconsciously confirming the script. Ken’s script is his expectation of being pushed aside and the previously unexpressed anger that goes with it; Abbie her expectation of being threatened and in danger; Ben that he will be a worry-free winner who has no emotional challenges; Carrie that she will only be noticed and be of worth if she is able to rescue others; and Don that he can keep his life neat and orderly. None of them responded to the fight per se, but to the meaning they made of it, to the way they filtered it through their developmental blueprints or scripts. We see that Ken’s, Abbie’s and Carrie’s scripts are already problematic. Ben’s and Don’s restrictive scripts could easily stop working for them should they encounter sufficient confrontation by events which challenge and overwhelm their filters, events which require emotional connection, or in which keeping order is impossible.
It is at these times, when someone implicitly understands that their blueprint or script is problematic, that help may be sought from a psychotherapist. Typically, all a person knows is that they are not happy in their own particular way, that their life isn’t working as they would like it to. The client needs from the therapist a caring presence, an atmosphere in which anything can be expressed without judgement. With that as a foundation, it is critical that client and therapist work together on understanding the client’s very personal, individual and unique experience, both in childhood and in the present. By coming to an understanding of the client’s childhood blueprint, script, or personal filter, we can begin to comprehend what led to the pattern of responses and decisions, and how we arrived at the present state of unhappiness. By doing this, we make implicit choices explicit, make the unknown known, bring unconscious processes into consciousness. By raising self-awareness we bring about the possibility of removing blocks to progress – beliefs which hold a person back, and filling in deficits – experiences of healthy relationship that were missing in childhood experience. In this way, we consciously alter the blueprint, rewrite the script, and intentionally change the personal filter, to lead a more self-aware and fulfilled life.
About Ian Pittaway
Ian is a psychotherapist and writer with a private practice in Stourbridge, West Midlands. Ian’s therapy is integrative, chiefly comprising key elements of transactional analysis, object relations, attachment research and person centred therapy. Ian has a special interest in trauma recovery and bereavement.
To contact Ian, call 07504 269 855 or click here.
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