This book is about the childhood pain we struggle with all our lives, and is meant as a blueprint for healing, a self-reconstruction process rather than a quick fix. To heal ourselves and protect others from the wounds we carry, we must understand and forgive the pain our parents have passed on to us.
With and without words, emotional lessons from the past are transmitted from parents to children. Unless we understand these forces, we may spend our lives reacting to emotions we have never properly identified. By making the effort to imagine our parents’ lives as they were growing up and while they raised us, we can appreciate what they endured as well as what we inherited.
The book challenges you as the reader to lay aside your own feelings to better understand your parents’ feelings. In Chapter 1, you, as an adult, will begin to revisit your parents’ childhoods. With more mature eyes and a greater depth of imagination, you will start to look again at your old stories—while you read about this process as others have experienced it. Doing this initiates new insights that may change your perception of your parents as well as give you a new perspective on your own childhood experience and emotional formation.
As you try to imagine your parents’ early experiences, you may stumble upon a fact whose significance you had overlooked. Chapter 2 asks why people so often do not see the reality of others, no matter how empathic or loving we are. The chapter examines the dimensions of our inborn self-centeredness that distorts our perspective and keeps us from understanding other people’s emotional experience.
Chapter 3 explores the biology of grief and trauma. The emotional wounds people carry have biological correlates. We need to understand the biology of our experience and emotional reactions to understand why we act as we do, and why change is so hard. Learned emotional reactions have survival value as well as inherent drawbacks; we need to understand when to ally with, and when to transcend, our biological inheritance.
Chapter 4 examines the roles that consolation and mourning play in healing after we have suffered emotional loss. Unless we heal ourselves, we pass the pain on to our children.
Chapters 5 through 7 focus on shattering events that have multigenerational repercussions. Even if you have not directly suffered the ravages of war or sexual abuse, for instance, or the loss of a parent or sibling in childhood, it is likely that a loved one or ancestor of yours has. Understanding our parents’ wounds allows us to understand the lingering effects that their injuries have on our lives. Chapter 8 investigates how the painful events of one generation affect the psychobiology of subsequent ones. Emotions from preverbal experience can haunt and misguide us if we misattribute those earlier feelings to our present circumstances.
We would do well to learn to recognize the emotional forces at play in our lives so that they no longer rule us or dominate our relationships. Chapter 9 examines how buried grief and fear direct us to fashion our own pain. We replay the unhealed painful events in attempts to heal them. Chapter 10 provides a glimpse of the overt and hidden consequences of honesty and concealment in our relationships.
Chapter 11 explores how intimate relationships such as marriage transform conflict into opportunities for healing. Couples play out unconscious themes in repetitive, stylized fights, and inevitable crises arise, for good or ill, when intimates expose each other’s core wounds.
Chapter 12 discusses how we can refashion painful childhood reactions that damage relationships and hurt intimates. By using the commandment to “honor your father and your mother” as a guide to our own behavior, we can recognize and grapple with the emotional distortions that we learned in reacting to the wounds of our parents.
The last chapters, Chapters 13 and 14, conclude with a challenge to suspend judgment and listen empathically even in the face of a parent’s reluctance and hostility. The end of a parent’s life is the last of our living opportunities to achieve new understandings and new reconciliation.
It is best to read this book sequentially. You may see topics of special interest to you in the chapter titles, and certainly no one’s going to stop you from reading those chapters first. But then I hope you will return to the beginning. Why? Because you, each of your parents, and each of your grandparents all have experienced different lives and been acted upon differently; any of the other chapters may raise questions in your mind that you will find worth pursuing as you seek to understand.
Throughout, I use the words we or us to mean our parents, ourselves, or our mates and our children. They or them can mean we or us, because we are all fundamentally alike and we play various roles in the family. I sometimes use the masculine pronoun as a universal to indicate either gender, and when I speak of marriage, I mean to include gay and lesbian and unmarried couples. The Notes at the end of the book are provided mainly for the benefit of therapists.
“Introduction” excerpt is from Hidden in Plain Sight: Getting to the Bottom of Puzzling Emotions. Copyright 2007 by Barry Grosskopf, M.D. Published by VanderWyk & Burnham. All rights reserved.